KISSMAS TURNS THE EXIT/IN INTO NASHVILLE ROCK CITY
For one night every December since 2011, four outstanding musicians don makeup and rock star clothing, circa the 70s, to pay tribute to the iconic rock band, KISS. It’s a benefit concert, as well as a stage show, that would easily impress the original members of this larger than life band. The date of this show was December 19, 2015. In theaters this same weekend, the new Star Wars movie made its premier. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, it is not 1977, the year of the first premier of a Star Wars movie and monster year of touring for KISS. Who knew that in 2015 you would be able to see new efforts derived from the same franchises? Only in one place did this happen. Welcome to Nashville Rock City!
Throwing it back to 1977, KISS began the year with the continuation of their Rock and Roll Over Tour in support of that album’s 1976 release. They played Madison Square Garden for the first time on February 18, 1977, as well as four nights in Japan that were also a first for the band. Those four shows broke the previous attendance record at Budokan Hall in Tokyo, formerly held by an obscure little band from England that also had four members. The tour ended April 4. They released Love Gun at the end of June and started the Love Gun Tour eight days later. The three Los Angeles shows were recorded for their upcoming Alive II album. Opening acts on this tour included Cheap Trick, Styx, and AC/DC. The last show of the tour was September 5. KISS finished out the year with the release of their new album and the start of the Alive II Tour. In mid-December, they played three sold out shows at Madison Square Garden and were on stage in Landover, Maryland on this night, December 19, 38 years ago. With the release of two albums and three world tours, there was plenty of material to choose from, and the year was well represented in the 2015 set list for KISSMAS.
Jeremy Asbrock (Ace Frehley), ET Brown (Gene Simmons), Phil Shouse (Paul Stanley), and Christopher Williams (Peter Criss) take on the four Ikons of KISS in what has become their annual homage, KISSMAS. They are, in no way, a KISS cover band. These four exceptional musicians are so in tune with the music and the character of KISS, that it’s easy to forget they aren’t the original members. From the clothing and makeup to the dialogue on stage and the instruments they play, the attention to detail is extraordinary. A casual effort this is not. This was the fifth KISSMAS show for these guys, putting some experience behind them in replicating authenticity of sound and stage performance. As a spectator for the first time, it was like watching the best of KISS come Alive! before your eyes.
The show opened with a darkened stage, an announcer, and the KISS name in lights above the drum kit. The set list for the show was 25 songs deep, heavily influenced by cuts from their 70s albums. “Deuce,” off their 1974 debut album, was the traditional opening song for tours in ’74, ’75, and the Alive! Tour in ’76. It kicked off this show in high energy, hard rockin’ KISS fashion, setting the tone for the night. Totally in character from the outset, these guys hit the stage like this was their regular gig, and left no doubt they had the chops to pull it off. With a nod to the debut album that started it all, they played six songs off the 1974 KISS album and 13 more from eight other albums released in the 70s. There were five songs from the 80s and just one from 1992’s Revenge album. The order of the set list proved just how schooled in KISS’ music these guys are. Lots of deep cuts made the list, and the few songs from the 80s, and the lone 90s entry, broke up the 70s invasion just enough to remind us that KISS was still relevant in subsequent decades.
In order to appreciate the attention to detail and flat out hard work that goes into the staging of this show, I thought being a rabid KISS fan was essential. Not so. If you’re a fan of great music and the classic rock era, and can appreciate the iconic place KISS holds in its history, you would thoroughly enjoy this show. From the perspective of pure rock and roll bravado, it gets no better than KISS. They had the wardrobe, the attitude, the props, and the music to stage over the top live shows, and KISSMAS pays tribute to that in the best of ways. Christopher Williams describes it as a tongue-in-cheek tribute show that has its moments of fun with props and dialogue, but takes the music VERY seriously. In this particular show, the effect guitars didn’t function as planned, but their malfunctions didn’t detract from the music at all. If anything, it was a validation that anything can happen in a live show, and sometimes those mishaps lead to great music, as it did when Ace Frehley was nearly electrocuted during the Rock and Roll Over Tour in 1976 and wrote “Shock Me” from the experience. The song didn’t appear often in KISS’ set lists over the years, so it was a rare treat for the audience at the Exit/In and for the hardcore fans in attendance who knew its history.
From “Deuce” to “Black Diamond,” this was rock and roll artistry at its finest. It was a comprehensive tribute to the history of the band with an emphasis on the music that defined the sound of the era. Of KISS’ bigger hits, the set list included, “Strutter,” “God of Thunder,” “I Was Made For Loving You,” “Love Gun,” and their mega hit, “Detroit Rock City.” Where the show really dug in its rock and roll platform heels was in the songs heard less often, such as, “Speedin’ Back to My Baby,” “All American Man,” “Larger Than Life,” “Acrobat,” and “Escape From The Island,” which was part of the encore. Others in particular that made me want to throw a lighter up in the air were “Ladies Room,” “War Machine,” “Young and Wasted,” and “Firehouse.” Phil Shouse, who was incomparable as Paul Stanley, provided the stage raps that accompanied certain songs, some excerpts from live shows and others in the spirit of Paul’s banter. The introduction for “Shandi” was inspired by its success Down Under, and Phil was quick to point out its geographical meaning, admonishing us for anatomical thinking – as if rock lyrics would ever point us in that direction.
Many people who’ve seen this show over its five years have said these four guys do KISS better than KISS. Each of them takes on not only the character, but the musical role of the KISS icon they play during the show. What they add is their own personal chops to the musicianship required, and that is where the show gets turned up, full throttle. As Christopher Williams pointed out, a lot of time goes into dialing in the right tones, solos, and harmonies they use during the show, and that’s just part of the intricate process they go through to stage this event. It’s a devotion to their craft that comes naturally to these four, and a labor of love for charity and the music that inspired them. Each one of them gave an outstanding musical performance.
ET Brown was spot on as Gene Simmons from the vocals, to the blood spitting, to wielding the axe bass. With the look, the tongue, and the badass bass playing, he owned this role on the KISSMAS stage without question. Jeremy Asbrock paid fitting tribute to Ace Frehley, ranked as one of the top metal guitarists of all time. Whether in harmony or on lead vocals, Jeremy was perfectly in tune, and his solo work during the show was impeccably Ace-like. In style and musicianship, he is the “Spaceman” and much more. Phil Shouse was simply brilliant as Paul Stanley. Stepping into the role of this shirtless frontman, he delivered over two hours of nonstop energy that included vocals, dialogue in character, authentic rock star moves, jumps, a run through the crowd to an intimate stage, and guitar playing that is nothing short of a workout. He is as physically fit as he is a phenomenal guitar player, and his dedication to the role is evident. It is exhilarating just to watch him front this show. In the role of drummer, Peter Criss, Christopher Williams took the drum kit to new heights. Christopher became a superfan of KISS the night he saw them play underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the MTV Awards in 1996. The kit Peter was playing that night was the ‘B’ Rig from the ’96/’97 KISS Alive Worldwide Reunion Tour. He now owns that kit, and it was sitting center stage at the Exit/In for this show. Christopher took command of the kit from the outset, pouncing like a big cat on its prey. There is no timidity in his beat, and it was the thunderous backbone needed to support the intensity of the set list. His solo was a mixture of Peter Criss’ traditional solo work and Eric Carr’s solo, “Carr Jam 1981,” off the 1992 Revenge album. As drum solos go, this one was just long enough to showcase the two styles of drumming Peter and Eric brought to the band. It had the flair of a guitar solo with the punch of an intense drumbeat, and the crowd loved it. When Christopher climbed atop the drum kit to close the set, it was like owning the kill. This “Catman” slayed KISSMAS.
The show ended with the classic, “Black Diamond,” a song KISS closed their concerts with often. It’s the last track on their debut album and a song that easily highlights all four members of the band. It was written by Paul Stanley with an added riff from Gene Simmons. It begins acoustically with Paul Stanley singing the intro, and features Peter Criss on lead vocals. The song ends with Ace Frehley’s solo and Peter Criss playing emphatic beats on the drums, often accompanied by a rising drum platform and pyrotechnics. It was a rock and roll ending not lost on the crowd at the Exit/In, who appreciated the extreme effort it took to authenticate KISS’ music so precisely. When Jeremy, ET, Phil, and Christopher assembled center stage to take their bow, the applause needed an amplifier to pay proper respect to what we’d just seen – Nashville Rock City personified!
The prevailing attitude, from people who don’t live in Nashville, is that it’s a country music town. Period. They’ve pigeonholed the city as nothing more than its advertisement – “Country Music Capital of the World!” It is that, and so much more. The number of rock musicians moving to Nashville grows by the day. You can find a great rock show just as easily as you can find a venue with country artists playing. Music City wouldn’t have music in it without the scores of musicians that live and play there, and not just any caliber of musicians. This city has the crème de la crème of professional musicians, all capable of playing many styles and genres. Case in point, this KISSMAS show. These four guys don’t play in a band together regularly. Phil Shouse and Jeremy Asbrock play together on Tuesday nights with Thee Rock and Roll Residency, but otherwise have jobs with other bands. Phil is the lead guitarist for country artist, Rodney Atkins. Christopher Williams is the drummer for metal band, Accept, and ET Brown is the bass player for metal band, Dark Hound. For one night a year, they put together what is likely the best KISS tribute show you’ll see anywhere. This is possible because of the professional chops of the musicians and the climate Nashville provides in bringing such talented, like-minded players together. When they find a common cause, they stage events such as this. They get to play the music they love and give back to the community they’re a part of. In the true spirit of the holidays and the rock and roll attitude of KISS, Merry Effin’ KISSMAS.
All photos courtesy of Chad Lee Photography. Visit his website for more samples of his work and contact information: http://www.chadleephotography.com/
Follow Chad Lee Photography on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chadleephotography/?fref=ts
To find out more about the Peter Criss Reunion kit and how it inspired Christopher Williams, read his story of passion and dedication to all things drum related: http://nashvillethreesixty.com/2015/12/05/christopher-williams-comes-alive-while-smokin-humble-pie/
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