By Mark Skaar
Photos by Darren Tromblay
Gene Simmons is a man who needs no introduction after having been in the rock ‘n’ roll game for 45 years as a member of KISS, the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll show.
For the past couple of years, however, when he hasn’t been at his “day job,” Simmons has hit the road with his solo band to play (mostly) songs that KISS doesn’t perform in a live setting, along with a few surprises thrown in for good measure, as he did when his rock ‘n’ roll circus made a stop at the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on May 2.
Taking a cue from the legendary “KISS Alive!” album, the band hit the stage with “Deuce,” followed by the sing-along standard, “Shout It Out Loud.” From there, Simmons dug deep into the catalog with “Are You Ready?”, a rarity that can be found on the recently-released “Gene Simmons Vault,” a massive 10-CD package, reserved for the KISS fan that has everything. Ever the salesman, Simmons took time to plug it, then promptly forgot the first line of the song when the band kicked in. Restart.
“It’s My Life,” which was written by Simmons and KISS bandmate Paul Stanley and covered by the late Wendy O. Williams from the Plasmatics fame back in the 1980s, gave way to “Calling Dr. Love” from “Rock And Roll Over.” The five-part harmony vocals on “Love” gave the song a level of authenticity not heard at KISS shows, as did the presence of three guitarists, all playing Gibsons, ironically, the same week the longtime company announced its bankruptcy. Simmons then invited “20 chicks” (his words) on stage to take part in singing the chorus of “I Love It Loud,” from KISS’s “Creatures of the Night” album. In classic millennial fashion, though, most of them seemingly could have cared less about being onstage with Simmons, instead focusing on the real task at hand — taking selfies. Simmons noticed and jokingly told one to “take the crack out of your hand.”
A rare airing of “Love Theme From KISS,” from the band’s self-titled debut album, featured great guitar harmonies and proved that KISS was much more than a bubblegum band with makeup. The band delivered a heart-thumpingly heavy version of “War Machine” before Simmons took a backseat to let his band members shine with a cover of “Long Tall Sally.”
A special moment of the night wasn’t music-related at all, ironically. A member of the Iowa National Guard was invited on stage to give a visibly emotional Simmons an honorary lifetime membership to the organization in recognition of his and KISS’s dedication to the armed services.
Getting back to business, Simmons invited several children on stage to assist in singing the chorus of “Do You Love Me,” a cute, adorable — and smart — move. Simmons didn’t get this far by being stupid. The man knows these are the future fans of KISS.
The band pulled out more rarities, including “Charisma” from the “Dynasty” album, “She’s So European” from “Unmasked,” and “A World Without Heroes” and “I” from “Music From The Elder,” then ended the set with Simmons inviting 50 members of the audience on stage for a bombastic finale of “Rock N Roll All Nite.”
The show was a spectacle, and playing in an intimate venue such as the Surf gave fans the rare opportunity to see Simmons up close and personal. Were there mistakes? Yes, but the “warts and all” approach was authentic and it worked magnificently. Was the volume low during many of the guitar solos? Yes, but neither Simmons nor his band seemed to care, nor did 99 percent of the crowd. They were there to have a good time and take a trip back in time to the place of loud music and smile-infested childhood memories.