To paraphrase David Mamet’s caustic sales pitch from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” KISS has always been closing.
That’s fine. From the start of the band’s mega-success with 1975’s “Alive!” and its crunching live single, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” through to bassist/demon Gene Simmons’ sales campaigns moving KISS condoms and coffins, everything the quartet has done has been geared to move product in a fashion harder and faster than its way-contagious music. And like many of its fellow rock elders — the Who, Elton John, the Eagles, variations of the Grateful Dead — KISS has repeatedly sold (and stretched) the idea of a finale, starting with the 2019-commenced “End of the Road” tour.
Co-founder Simmons has sworn on a veritable stack of bibles that this farewell is for real, giving it some extra weight by staging the finale where KISS was born, New York, with a week’s worth of events across the city before the group’s would-be last-ever show at Madison Square Garden Saturday night. But for its 11 p.m. encore, the band found a way to sell itself to future generations of the KISS Army with the on-stage introduction of KISS avatars, created by Industrial Light & Magic in partnership with Pophouse Entertainment Group, the Swedish tech company behind ABBA’s “Voyage” avatar show in London. This will makes KISS the first U.S.-born band to go fully virtual and stage its own avatar show.
To be fair, Simmons did tell Rolling Stone in November that their Dec. 2 grand finale would be “the final KISS-in-makeup appearance,” but we all saw how that worked out when they took off their costumes in 1983. Not great. Both the band and its music seemed lifeless without stacked heels and kabuki color schemes. Perhaps rather than go back on their “last tour” word or dare to play without makeup again, now KISS can simply push its avatars to do the live grunt work.
But here was the un-simulated KISS on the stage of a sold-out MSG with Simmons and guitarist-vocalist-starchild Paul Stanley doing their individual signature routines: wagging their shaggy manes, flashing their long tongues, spitting blood, blowing flaming flumes and donning their usual black-white-and-red make-up, all in the service of anthemic, melodic metal. If you didn’t want to leave New York smelling like sulfur, you shouldn’t have gone to a KISS show that featured at least two dozen towering, fire-filled explosions. Considering how much of this audience was dressed like their fave KISS superheroes, it seems safe to assume everyone arrived brimstone-ready.
Sadly, but not at all surprisingly, this KISS rode into the sunset without original members guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer/”Beth” vocalist Peter Criss, with Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer long having taken their place as Spaceman and Catman, respectively. For anyone who’d failed to read all the disavowals of a full reunion, or otherwise just held out hope that Criss would appear during the encore singing his milky ballad, “Beth,” or hear Frehley’s “New York Groove,” there may have been compensation for any such disappointment in the novelty of KISS’ surprise avatar climax.
All that, and KISS was as phenomenal in its loud, blood-filled, fleshy MSG end as it has been since 1973, when they first donned makeup and rehearsed in a small hall 10 blocks south of the Garden. Generational rock anthems with attitude: that’s what KISS did best. Their avatars have their work cut out for them.
Descending onto the stage from mid-air risers, Simmons began his Saturday at MSG with his usual welcome, flipped for his hometown. “Awwwriight, Newww Yawwwwwk. You wanted the best, you got the best,” growled the bassist before the quartet leapt into a swaggering “Detroit Rock City” and its immediate follow-up, the twin-guitar-scream of “Shout It Out Loud.” Along with Simmons’ gruff, manly background vocals, the latter track was highlighted by Thayer’s razoring guitar leads. Give him credit: Frehley’s signature taut, funky leads presented tough, ridiculously high boots with angry faces to fill, but Thayer (KISS’ guitarist since 2002) has done so with remarkable taste and flavor. When the guitarist took his usual long solo between “Cold Gin” and “Lick it Up” (the latter with its smart tribute to the Who via its “Won’t Get Fooled Again” bridge), Thayer crafted immensely soulful metallic runs reminiscent of Jeff Beck.
“This is the end of the road,” yelled Stanley from center stage in a screechy cackle. “It seems sad. But there’s joy. And we couldn’t have done it without you.”
Taking into account the band’s longtime fans, KISS went back to the vaults for first-album crunchers and deep, thudding rarities like the noisy, punkish “Deuce,” the chunky metallic boogie of “War Machine” from 1982’ “Creatures of the Night,” and the cowbell-filled “Heaven’s on Fire.”
What was interesting about “Heaven’s on Fire” and “Say Yeah,” was that these particular tracks – not unlike their disco-era smash “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” which Stanley played on MSG’s B-stage – were hip-shaking, rhythm-heavy mini-epics of R&B-infused metal. Give drummer Singer and bassist Simmons credit for keeping things swinging.
And give credit to Stanley for the night’s most emotional moment, talking about KISS’ first MSG show in 1977, and seeing his parents on one side of the room with Simmons’ mom on the other. “Whether you’re up here or down there, all you ever want is your parents’ approval,” said the Starchild as the set-up to “Cold Gin,” with its tribute to New York boroughs like Coventry and Queens.
Soul and reminiscence aside, there were KISS’ usual less-than-sentimental antics, such as Gene blowing fire on “I Love It Loud,” spitting gobs of blood during a bass solo, and scarily lick-kissing Thayer without distracting the guitarist. The energetic Stanley dashed about quickly throughout the night, and, in his stacked heels, zip-lined from MSG’s B-stage to rejoin his KISS brethren during the set-closing classic, “Black Diamond.”
Post-encore, with their putative closer, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” all finished, Stanley leaned into his mic, slyly, and prepped his sales pitch for an afterlife for the band.
“You know something? The end of this road is the beginning of another road – we’re not going anywhere. You’ll see us on all different things, all the time. See you in your dreams. We love you.”
Engulfed in smoke and flashing lights, the flesh-and-blood KISS went out atop a set of risers, with the new KISS avatars emerging on a screen at the back of the stage with higher, more monster-y boots, youthful smooth faces behind the make-up, and dead laser eyes that eventually shot flames and moonbeams. Much scarier than Pophouse’s ABBA avatars by far, KISS’ menacing digital imagery will live on, with details TBD. This glimpse of the band’s avatar future was probably closer to a cinematic teaser than a true representation of the full-scale, high-tech show that ILM and Pophouse are putting together. But, of course, it didn’t play out like a mere short film, as it was accompanied by the attendant smoke, lights and FX you’d expect from a live gig, so to make the new avatars more at one with the usuals of a KISS concert set. All that really seemed missing was the live schvitzing and spitting.
“Your power has made us immortal,” yelled Stanley’s avatar, as the smoke cleared and the faux band launched into a crushing cover of Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” leading into a final warning: “A new KISS era starts now. Oh yeah.” Ending with a film might seem anticlimactic, but inside the room, the KISS Army was enthralled with the idea that their heroes might rock and roll through a potentially endless series of nights, in some form.
See you in hell.