KISS and Mötley Crüe at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre | Photos
In the Bruce Springsteen v. KISS/Mötley Crüe tug-of-war we concocted for last week's issue, I fell in with the far more campy of camps and headed out to Tinley Park. The last time I had seen KISS, it was 2000, and "the hottest band in the world" was on its "Farewell Tour." Well, it's been a very long goodbye for the painted ones—at least the remaining original members Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, who replaced Ace and Peter with musicians wearing the same makeup and outfits. And as Stanley, ever the bantering hype man, reminded the audience five songs in, the group has a new album, Monster, dropping on October 9. Last year, the Crüe went on its 30th anniversary jaunt, surprised as we all were that none of the members died in the '80s. (Okay, yes, bassist Nikki Sixx did legally die of a heroin overdose, but was brought back to life two minutes later with a shot of adrenaline to his heart, hence the song "Kickstart My Heart.")
When these groups are brought up, there's typically some snickering to be heard: When are those middle-aged guys going to finally hang up the spandex and call it a career, huh? But seeing these still-strong groups live in the (sometimes saggy) flesh disintegrates all that mocking in a blaze of pyrotechnics.
Why should they retire? There aren't great reasons.
Obviously, they're all still making bank—the chief reason any once-retired band decides to put the show back on the road. This applies especially to KISS—a brand more than a rock outfit really—which everyone agrees is more blatantly cash-obsessed than most modern rappers. When groups like KISS and Mötley Crüe hit the road, they're playing to packed houses. At Tinley Park on Friday, there didn't appear to be an empty seat anywhere in the place.
Plus, highly theatrical bands like KISS and Mötley Crüe only benefit from advanced stage-production techniques. Some fans might look back nostalgically to a time when KISS had a simple light-bulb sign backdrop. Yet even staunch analog advocates would have a hard time arguing against the impact of a huge, stage-sized TV screen flashing KISS! KISS! KISS! during set opener "Detroit Rock City." C'mon, luddites: The blood Gene spits is still an actual, physical liquid! Surprisingly, it seems the Crüe has taken to the accessibility of pyro as modern KISS has noticeably moved away from a dependence on the flame. Sixx, who in the band's early Whisky A Go-Go days used to crudely set himself ablaze, shoots fire from the head of his modified bass guitar. Back in the mid- to late-'80s, Crüe drummer Tommy Lee's gyro-kit used to simply spin; these days, it's on a roller coaster track. (Unfortunately, T-bone has decided to beat out dubstep rhythms, an indulgence of his own tastes that's out of step with the rest of the set.)
Theatrics and money aside, these groups simply still sound muscular. Maybe it's that they're finally sober enough to proficiently play their instruments—and enjoy doing it. Strutting around the stage as fay as he wants to be, Stanley stole the show from his blood-spewing collaborator, his voice still a vital instrument even at 60 years old. The licks of Frehley's all-too-square-jawed stand-in Tommy Thayer were boringly skillful, and Ace's smoking guitar bit was missed. KISS's biggest sin, however, was a setlist with some glaring omissions: No "Hotter Than Hell"? "Hell or Hallelujah" off the forthcoming album, but no "Strutter"? And I suppose the absence of Frehley and Criss precluded the band from doing anything off of those members' 1978 solo albums, even though Ace's LP is arguably one of the top five entries in KISS's catalogue.
But ultimately why KISS and Mötley Crüe—and Van Halen and any number of other reanimated groups—continue to thrive on the road is because they don't operate as real bands, per se. They function much more like cover bands doing earlier, better-loved editions of their acts—for instance, late-'70s KISS and mid-'80s Crüe. Those are the periods when the public's idea of who those bands are crystallized in the minds of most fans. Notice, you'll no longer catch the Crüe breaking up the greatest hits with '90s tunes no one wants to hear. And it's not likely KISS will tour unmasked ever again. The evening ends with "Rock and Roll All Nite," as it always will.