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Roast of the Town

Take away the makeup, fireworks and fake blood, and what you still have is KISS, a so-so band with a great hook.


IRVINE — After the greasepaint and costumes had been paraded, the fake blood drooled, the enormous tongue lizarded, the dozens of rounds of pyrotechnics unleashed (and yes, the Irvine Meadows stage canopy almost accidentally set ablaze), there was just one thing to do to assess the impact of Act 1 in the return of the original KISS, which capped Saturday's daylong KROQ Weenie Roast.

Grab the nearest 13-year-old and find out what he thought.

"So awesome," quoth Eric Eastman of Tustin, a KISS novice in Section 4, with all the wide-eyed wonder of innocence.

As you might expect, the professional KISS cynic in Section 4 saw it differently. "Gimme a break" is pretty much how he and the vast majority of other rock fans born before the second Eisenhower administration see KISS, and nothing in the second coming of these heavy-metal comic-book figures is going to change that.

For anyone who got through high school on such '60s and early '70s hard-rock staples as Hendrix and the Stones, "The Who Live at Leeds," Deep Purple's "Machine Head" and Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," KISS was and ever will be a kiddie band, a foursome of derivative, content-free, modestly talented bar rockers who hit on a gimmick that worked.

To their credit, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss returned without any cloying sentiment or pompous self-congratulatory remarks; instead, they greeted the crowd and carried on as if they'd never been away.

Maybe they were on good behavior because they were returning on something of a neutral court; while a good number of Weenie Roasters left the amphitheater, rolling their eyes, before KISS turned their daylong alterna-rock fest into a heavy-metal spectacle, the band still faced an excited, near-capacity house and got the response it wanted.

This was the original KISS lineup's first concert since 1979, when drummer Criss exited. Lead guitarist Frehley followed in 1982. Simmons, on bass, and Stanley, on guitar, have kept the band going without pause, but they had long abandoned the trademark outfits and makeup, which until Saturday hadn't been sported on stage since June 1983.

KISS content--there were no new songs--remains at the lowest level of heavy-metal hedonism: sex, partying, rebellion (the usual) dispensed bluntly or with witless double entendre. But one can only admire the canniness of the band-as-concept.

P.T. Barnum made a show-biz killing off the theory that a sucker is born every minute. KISS was the first rock band fully to realize, or at least fully embrace, the theory that a gawker is born every millisecond. KISS captured the kids with spectacle in the mid-'70s; those kids are now grown and full of nostalgia for their youthful pleasures.

And there's always a fresh young crop of gawkers coming along. It's no surprise that tickets for KISS's upcoming tour are selling like mad.

In its first hour back, using scaled-down production, KISS offered a couple of legitimately gawkable sights: the three guitarists riding moving platforms out over the audience during the set-closing "Black Diamond," and the big, confetti-shower ending to the encore, "Rock and Roll All Nite."

The outfits and makeup are classics: comic-book monsters and heroes come to life, although the huge platform shoes made it impossible for Simmons, Frehley and Stanley to move much faster than chess pieces.

Simmons' blood-spitting shtick left his chest stained and a piddling little puddle at his feet. Like his fire-breathing routine, it was a tired, unimpressive carny trick included as a necessary part of the ritual. But Simmons' flickering tongue is truly impressive.

The fireworks were not dazzling, except, that is, for the large percentage of humanity that is always dazzled by things that go hiss-boom-bam (that gawker thing again). A box of those hiss-booms stored on a platform just under the stage roof caught fire accidentally during "Detroit Rock City." It looked like a small bonfire, with occasional bursts of fireworks shooting out.

"Something tells me that wasn't supposed to happen. Maybe we'll burn the place down," mused Stanley, who then fiddled something on his guitar while the box of pyro burned, to be snuffed out two or three minutes later by a crew member armed with a towel.

Musically, KISS plodded for the first half, but things improved as the material got more propulsive. The one above-average talent these guys had was for putting together a catchy chorus; starting with "100,000 Years," the last four of the band's 10 songs were meaty enough melodically and had some zip in the playing.

Frehley is a decent, if hardly distinctive, guitarist who kept his licks razory, concise, and blues rooted, except for the obligatory useless solo slot, which in this abridged concert was mercifully short; we escaped the obligatory useless drum solo entirely.

Stanley remains a weak, stringy-voiced singer who is so ill equipped for his operatic style that it's almost heroic for him to even try; Simmons was a passable gruff growler, and Frehley and Criss' occasional lead vocal contributions were surprisingly adequate. But heck--it looked like KISS, it sounded like KISS, and even as defensive an onlooker as yours truly got caught in a couple of unguarded gawks.

In what may or may not have been a spontaneous moment of fellowship and delight, a grinning Criss jumped on Simmons' back at the end of the set and went for a ride, two formerly estranged comrades now reconciled for fun and lots of profit.

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