Today’s Brain Buster: Which of these people might have trouble finding lifeguard work?
One October in the mid-Nineties, my wife and I were invited to a Halloween party. It struck me as a funny idea for the two of us to wear carefully applied KISS makeup but to otherwise make no changes to our everyday wardrobe. We set out across town along I-70, Julie sporting the Starchild design of Paul Stanley and me bearing the Demon likeness of Gene Simmons. We enjoyed the varied reactions of passing motorists, but upon arriving at the party, we were dismayed to discover that we were the only guests in costume. Rather than appearing ironically witty, we instead looked just plain stupid. When it comes to successfully pulling off such a stunt, there is safety in numbers.
I was reminded of the incident after traveling a few hours in the other direction on I-70 to catch KISS at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis on Monday. A friend and I arrived with plenty of time to enjoy the fair before the show, and during the interval we observed increasing numbers of KISS fans arriving in tour shirts, many of them wearing makeup and some outfitted in full stage gear. Though the more elaborately costumed provoked sidelong glances from average fairgoers, they also earned the admiration and support of their peers. In the strange world that is the KISS Army, cavorting about in costume makes anyone a sideshow celebrity.
A little lack of silver makeup is nothing to worry about.
The faithful began congregating around the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand hours before gates opened, the echoing reverberations of soundcheck audible to everyone outside the open-air venue. The KISS marketing team had wisely set up one vending booth outside of the gates, and sales of merchandise were brisk. Current tour shirts were being hawked at $40 to $45 each, and an oversize tour program went for $30. I’m not sure where the footsoldiers of the KISS Army get their money, but there seemed to be no shortage of it.
Just your average Indiana State Fair-going couple.
Temperatures had peaked in the nineties on this sweltering August afternoon, and so it was a relief to gain admittance and take our seats among the upper rows of the shaded grandstand. From there we observed not only the stage but all of the surrounding equipment that would otherwise be hidden at a conventional venue, from semi-trucks to tour buses to hospitality tents. In an inspired logistical and promotional maneuver, tour personnel had flanked the main floor seating on the dirt horse racing track with a pair of semis painted with the visages of Gene, Paul, Eric, Tommy, and Dr. Pepper.
Say, who’s sponsoring this tour, anyway?
A capacity crowd of 14,611 ticket buyers had largely settled into their seats by the announced showtime. Contrary to what the band’s image might suggest, the crowd was predominantly polite and good-natured, with fans of all ages and entire families in attendance. The audience gave a warm reception to opening act The Envy, a Toronto band recently signed to Gene Simmons’ own recording label. Lead singer Shaun Frank expressed awe at playing for the biggest crowd of their career. I had to wonder what he made of the spontaneous eruption of cheers that occurred midway through their performance, an ovation caused solely by the momentary visibility of a fully costumed KISS being guided through the extensive backstage area.
A member of the KISS Army Youth Auxiliary.
After a long wait during which the sun approached the horizon yet the air remained oppressively hot, the house lights were cut and a gigantic, logo-emblazoned front curtain was dropped. Instantly the audience erupted and was on their feet, from the front row to the back of the grandstand. An satellite image of Earth appeared on the massive video backdrop, a visual expanse so large that it made the standard screens at either side of the stage almost pointless. Zooming ever closer toward the Midwest, the presentation eventually settled on an aerial image of the venue itself. A fanciful segment featured the members of KISS as colossal figures stomping alongside downtown buildings like Godzilla, followed by a prerecorded piece showing the band threading its way through anonymous backstage corridors on their way to the stage. At last the traditional announcement was made, “You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world, KISS!”
With that, the band made a memorable entrance, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Tommy Thayer emerging on a narrow platform that rose from behind Eric Singer’s drum kit. The stage machinery turned out to be especially appropriate for a state fair venue, as it continued to rise over and before Singer like a Top Spin amusement ride, ultimately depositing his bandmates on the stage surface below. After the guitarists disembarked and the device returned to the rear of the stage, a lighting panel displaying the KISS logo folded into place behind them. All the while, the band played Modern Day Delilah, the first of three cuts from the 2009 album Sonic Boom (“available exclusively at Wal-Mart,” added Stanley with tongue-in-cheek voiceover delivery) to be promoted during the evening. Two-thirds of the eighteen-number setlist, however, would be comprised of songs that initially appeared during just the first three years of their recording history, from their 1974 debut to 1977’s Love Gun.
Keep your platform boots on the riser at all times until the ride comes to a complete stop.
Cold Gin was followed by Let Me Go, Rock ‘N’ Roll, which in turn was succeeded by Firehouse, the conclusion of which serves as a showcase for Simmons’ legendary firebreathing skills. Although impressive, the stunt came off as a mere formality among the copious pyrotechnics that define a modern KISS show. It must have really wowed audiences back in the technologically austere 70’s, but now it is merely one ball of fire amidst hundreds, if not thousands. A good thrill for the front rows, perhaps.
The entire audience was still on their feet by the conclusion of Say Yeah, a second number from Sonic Boom, and they remained that way through Deuce, Crazy Crazy Nights, Calling Dr. Love, and Shock Me. The last song concluded with an extended solo by Tommy Thayer, who kept the audience enthralled with only Eric Singer as his accompaniment. After playing his guitar behind his back, he let its sustain ring out while somehow balancing his instrument in the palm of his hand, a feat that was explicable when the guitar then ascended into the rafters as Thayer walked offstage. Singer entertained with a short solo only to be joined again by Thayer, who returned with a guitar that shot out pyrotechnic bursts the length of the stage. The whole business ended with both of them rising up on hydraulic platforms, and even Singer got to set off an explosion of his own, apparently blowing into one end of a tube that shot out a heavy rain of sparks.
Only at the introduction of a third Sonic Boom cut, I’m An Animal, coming about an hour into the set, did a large portion of the grandstand decide to rest its weary feet and sit down for awhile. The respite didn’t last for long, however. After 100,000 Years, during which Stanley used his microphone as a lasso in the style of Roger Daltrey, it was time for Simmons to spit blood. The grandstand rose to its feet again for the eerie green and strobe-flash lit spectacle, only to be confounded when it was not followed by God of Thunder, nor did The Demon ascend to the top of the lighting rig. Instead, the band played I Love It Loud.
Love Gun came next, its first verse performed a capella by Stanley, who teased the audience by suggesting, “Should we sing it?” The infectious bolero rhythm of its bridge was mimicked at the song’s end by a staccato burst of explosions. Stanley then took his solo turn with some entertaining noodling that wound up in an unaccompanied performance of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. “Way down inside,” warbled the Starchild, “you need…” When the audience supplied the final word, he deadpanned, “So you know that one.” Ever the cheerleader, Stanley exhorted the crowd to sing the beginning of Black Diamond, the rest of which was ably sung by Eric Singer. The regular set was capped off by a well-received rendition of Detroit Rock City.
The show took a decidedly silly turn at that moment, starting with a video display of Kiss Army snapshots that appeared to have been taken earlier in the day. While the audience cheered for an encore, the pictures rotated in and out with all of the technological finesse of a PowerPoint slide show. When at last KISS returned, the four of them took a bow at the front of the stage before performing Beth, with Singer on lead vocals and the rest huddled into what looked like a somewhat embarrassed unplugged trio. Surely, Beth must be the albatross around their musical necks, an unapologetic slice of sentimentality that nonetheless became one of their biggest hits. When it was over, Stanley was beaming with the sort of wide grin that a schoolboy might affect after being forced to participate in a dull Christmas pageant.
“In case you didn’t know,” called out Stanley as a large prop check was brought onstage, “every night, we give a dollar from every ticket to an organization called the Wounded Warriors Care Project. All the brave men and women who fight overseas to keep this country free – they deserve to be treated like heroes when they return to this country. Those people sacrifice their lives, they come back with broken spirits, broken bodies, and the government does not take care of them, and we will not let that happen. We pray for the safe return of every one of those heroes. God bless them. As of tonight, we are giving $105,932 to the Wounded Warrior Care Project. Those are the heroes, and we pray for their safe return.”
It is an unquestionably commendable charitable effort by KISS, and the audience responded enthusiastically. It might have been the perfect moment to start the next song, but Stanley wasn’t finished yet, and that is when the band’s altruism jumped the shark into a sea of parody. “Now, if you want to send a message to them, you don’t need no telephone, you don’t need your computer. It’s prayer, and it’s sayin’ the Pledge of Allegiance.” Surely, I thought to myself, he’s not going to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. “So let’s send a message to those troops. Put your hand over your heart, and say with us…” Spinal Tap could not have concocted a sillier moment.
The 80’s sans makeup anthem Lick It Up followed, after which Rock and Roll All Nite served as the requisite show closer. This is the one part of the concert that must be seen live to truly understand the experience, as neither words nor pictures could ever do justice to the incredible blizzard of confetti that was maintained throughout the final song. Propelled by several banks of compressed air cannons along the front of the stage, a massive amount of paper filled the space in front of the band and slowly expanded until the party reached the upper rows of the grandstand. “Now we know where all the money from those $45 t-shirts goes,” I yelled to my friend, “it’s to cover the confetti bill!”
Kudos to KISS for putting on a professional and thoroughly entertaining show despite the oppressive heat. With mugginess still hanging in the stale air, the grandstand approached the rank atmosphere of the fair’s livestock buildings. Cans of Dr. Pepper Cherry were handed out to everyone as we filed out the gates. Having sat out on pallets all day, the potentially refreshing beverages were quite warm. We drank them anyway, grateful for some gratis hydration, and wiped our sleeves on our makeup-free brows.