The spaceman cometh



December 27, 2007
Springfield, Virginia


I became a KISS fan in the late 1980s. I was probably 9 or 10 years old. The first album I bought was Hot in the Shade, though soon after that purchase I began to learn of the band's history through the Smashes, Thrashes & Hits CD. As I quickly added the entire back catalog to my collection, guitarist Ace Frehley emerged as my favorite band member. I was drawn to the darker, heavier edge of the songs he wrote, especially in the band’s early days. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons wrote many songs I will love until the day I die, but Ace’s material stands out and is not as easily placed in the time in which it was written. To this day, he is undervalued as a songwriter within KISS and underrated as a lead guitarist.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to attend the first show of Frehley’s winter “Rocket Ride” tour, which is intended to precede the release of a new solo album in 2008. Opportunities to see a legend in such an intimate venue—Jaxx holds only a few hundred people—are few. Though not without the expected opening night hiccups, the performance showed Ace doesn't need to share the spotlight with anyone to entertain.

He’s 56 years old, clean and sober, but he’s still Ace; in other words, he still seems like he has come here from another planet. Take these nuggets of on-stage banter:

“We whipped this one up a few days ago,” he said, introducing “Stranger in a Strange Land .” “I don't know what album it’s from.” (It’s from his 1987 solo album Frehley’s Comet, if you’re keeping score at home.)

After the song: “That was a book, wasn’t it, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land ’? Someone wrote a book called that ... I should write a fuckin’ book!”

Later, he addressed current events. “Didn't someone get eaten by a fuckin’ tiger a few days ago?” he asked in apparent disbelief. “What the fuck is that about? I saw it in the paper and I died. I almost took a shit.”

A couple times he wondered aloud if he had played Jaxx before. He was under the impression he had but was unable to find his picture in the hallway with other performers who have graced the venue’s stage. (The Jaxx web site says Ace has played there twice.)

His rambling, which appeared to amuse him as much as the audience, helped create a relaxed atmosphere suitable to the intimate setting. The music, however, was no laughing matter. Frehley and his band—guitarist Derrek Hawkins, bassist Anthony Esposito and drummer Scot Coogan—cannot have been together long and while they weren’t flawless, they were a lot tighter than I expected. At this point, Ace seems more interested in playing guitar than singing; he has a habit of getting to the microphone just a hair late for some lines and looking down at his guitar—and moving away from the mic—a little too early, letting his vocals trail off before completing the line. It’s been a while since he has played some of these songs, so that might have something to do with it.

The 95-minute set pulled songs from KISS’s debut through the 1998 “reunion” album Psycho Circus, stopping along the way for a few of the more obscure KISS tracks and selections from Frehley’s solo career. Coogan, formerly of Brides of Destruction, proved to be a particularly valuable part of the band, handling the lead vocal duties on “Breakout” and “Love Gun.” After Ace's extended solo, which featured the famous smoking guitar, Coogan even gave a Paul Stanley-esque “Ace Frehley, lead guitar! Shock me!” Esposito took over the mic for “Strange Ways” and Hawkins had his turn during a medley of classics by The Who, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.

ACE FREHLEY SET LIST: Rip It Out, Hard Times, Parasite, Snowblind, I Want You, Rock Soldiers, Shot Full of Rock, Into the Void, Breakout, Stranger in a Strange Land, Strange Ways, New York Groove, Shock Me, Guitar solo, Rocket Ride, (encore) Medley, Love Gun, Cold Gin/Black Diamond outro

Throughout the performance, the audience was appreciative but not overly enthusiastic. The reason: I think a lot of people were tired. The evening’s music began at 8:30 p.m., when Ashland, Kentucky’s Hydrogyn took the stage. It was a tough spot for them because the crowd had yet to fill in, but they churned out a solid 35-minute set. Frontwoman Julie is reminiscent of Doro Pesch and guitarist Jeff Westlake is a real shredder.

Here’s how not to endear yourself to an audience as an opening band: Take nearly an hour to set up your gear. That’s what Raleigh, North Carolina’s Jam Pain Society did. No one comes to an Ace Frehley show to see Jam Pain Society. That’s not a comment on the quality of the band’s music or performance at all, just a simple fact. Get on and get off so the people can get what they paid for. Their music is too sample-heavy for my tastes, which is unfortunate because I don’t think the band needs to rely on samples. Their songs have good grooves, guitarist Chris Hill played some nice leads, Leah Kirby is an entertaining frontwoman with a decent set of pipes and they have something interesting happening with Greg Putnam playing the Chapman Stick and six-string bass. The electronics might work in the studio and sound good on CD. But in a live setting, tone it down and just play, guys.

After Jam Pain Society, the wait for Ace was more than an hour. It was almost midnight before he finally took the stage. It’s not very rock n’ roll to say it, but that’s awfully late when you’re playing to mostly older fans, many of whom have their children with them.

I’ll give the band and crew the benefit of the doubt and chalk issues like this up to it being the first show of the tour. Fortunately, Frehley and his band were worth the wait.