Monday, November 30, 2009

San Diego: The True Spectacle

By Scott McDonald

My introduction to the unstoppable force of nature that is KISS came in the form of a dubious confirmation. While she previously had her suspicions, my grandmother's fears were cemented by both neighbors and friends at church, when they told her that KISS was indeed an acronym for "Kings (or Knights) In Satan's Service."

My parents were understanding, but after being relayed this information, I was out of luck. They pulled the plug on my incessant, week-long campaign for the funds to purchase the KISS comics I wanted so desperately and seemingly everyone else in my third grade class had acquired.

I immediately went into super-stealth mode. Under the guise of "hanging out," I spent time at the loose-parenting confines of my next-door neighbor Todd, playing with Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley dolls, listening to "Destroyer" on his record player and watching their movie "KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park" on TV.

Years later, and long after they'd dispelled the acronym theory as silliness, my parents watched me and three high-school friends drive to the San Diego Sports Arena to see a KISS show in 1988. They were touring on "Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits," a compilation that included the single "Let's Put the X in Sex." It was a decent show, but they played without make-up or costuming and it was far from the full KISS experience.

Friday night, after almost three decades in the making, I was finally witness to the true spectacle of KISS.

Returning to the Sports Arena on their "ALIVE 35" tour, the band was in top form. Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Tommy Thayer, and Eric Singer delivered a sensational rock and roll spectacle to the jam-packed arena.

From the time the perennial show opening "YOU WANTED THE BEST, YOU'VE GOT THE BEST! THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE WORLD...KISS!!" was shouted over the speakers and the gigantic signature curtain fell, the fully-costumed band gave the throng of fans exactly what they came to see.

Ripping through six straight favorites recorded prior to 1978, it was obvious the quartet is more than happy catering to the will of its loyal subjects - many of whom painted their faces in allegiance to the macabre, super-heroes the foursome portray, one even going so far as to don Simmons' demon make-up and full vested suit as seen on the group's "Dressed To Kill" album.

The band did squeeze in two songs from their latest release, "Sonic Boom," tucked in between a non-stop barrage of long-time hits.

But even though the merchandising machine was in full effect - fans could buy the usual shirts and hats as well as anything from USB wristbands of that night's show to guitar straps to embroidered thongs - it seemed more than anything about giving longtime supporters a great show. Between two massive "KISS ARMY" wall drapes, the band pounded out hit after hit from a colossal stage littered with video screens, bright lights and fog machines.

Even as they approach the four-decade mark in their career, the group doesn't seem tired of entertaining. Throughout the entire two-hour show, each member continually mugged for the audience, Simmons constantly sticking out and wagging his trademark tongue and Stanley spitting and throwing guitar picks as far as they would reach.

The highlight of the night came as Gene Simmons spat blood during a fog-ridden bass solo that culminated in him being lifted a few stories in the air to a small platform above the stage. All eyes were focused near the Sports Arena's rafters as he led the crowd in a version of his trademark "I Love it Loud."

Topping that, as they played their biggest hit and last song of the set, "Rock and Roll All Nite," 350 pounds of confetti were shot out of high-powered air cannons, covering the entire building inside and out into the hallways.

After a quick break, it was back for an encore filled with more than enough pyrotechnics, flames, fog, explosions, and sirens to match the bombing of Dresden. The appreciative capacity crowd, ears ringing and eyes adjusting, sent them to the next tour stop with an extended ovation.

As satisfied fans coursed out of the arena doors and I headed back to my car, I couldn't help but smile. For a group that first caught my attention when I still slept with a night-light, it seemed the "hottest band in the world" was better than ever.