Review / photos - John Jeffrey
Amherst, NY - Writing about your childhood hero can be a daunting task. While spending years defending Ace Frehley and KISS to naysayers, at the same time, when you become the biggest fan, you can also be the harshest critic. So please keep in mind when reading this review, my comments are not coming a negative place, but from a point of respect and admiration. I wish I could say that Ace's show on Monday night - at the University of Buffalo's Center for the Arts - was the best show I've ever seen him put on, but after seeing Ace perform countless times with KISS and with Frehley's Comet and his countless incarnations of his own "solo" band, that would not be the truth.
Musically, I have to say, Ace is playing better than ever. His guitar tone was on point and there was no hesitation in his attack, when hammering out guitar solos on KISS classics like "Shock Me," "New York Groove" and "Parasite." Perhaps a minor complaint is that Ace played too many KISS songs. Considering there were only about 500 fans in the audience, one could argue that a majority of them were diehards, and would have been fine without hearing songs like "Love Gun." I totally understand the point of playing the most recognizable songs when playing to a mixed crowd of diehards and casual fans (like in a festival setting), but on this night, it was certainly not the case. And the whole (drummer) "Scot Coogan out sings Paul Stanley" on the KISS material is a bit of a stretch. Yes, Scot does an admirable job when taking over on the lead vocals, but there is nothing remarkable or identifiable about his voice. I can only assume that what most people like about his singing, is that he sings the vocal melodies like how they were originally recorded on the studio albums. A matter of fact, Coogan seems to be obsessed with not only singing the songs just like the studio versions, but also playing the drum parts and tempos just like them as well. While the idea on paper may look good, hearing songs like "Rocket Ride" or "Snowblind" being played at album tempo sound really slow and seem to drag. Even the rest of the band seemed to struggle at times to play
the songs at such a slower tempo.
While seeing Ace perform, live in person, is always a thrill, I have to admit that his change in appearance really threw me for a loop. The things I enjoyed about Ace's performances were all of the little nuances - the knee knocking, the foot shuffling, the guitar lifts, the lip puckering, the eye winking, etc. While some of them were still there in spurts, reading any of his facial expressions and seeing how he was really feeling the music, was next to impossible, largely due to his goatee and sunglasses (which he wore the entire show). While my complaints may seem trivial, it really did make a big impact on how I personally enjoyed his performance. Showing emotion as a performer is highly underrated.
Not enough good things can be said about bassist Chris Wyse and guitarist Richie Scarlet. While solidly keeping down their musical ends, their high energy presence played significant roles in the night's performance. While I could have done without the bass solo, Wyse's lead vocal on "Strange Ways" was commendable and Scarlet's counterpoint leads to Frehley's were explosive. Hearing Richie sing "Breakout" and "2 Young 2 Die" really had me clamoring for more great songs like "Shot Full of Rock" and "Lost in Limbo," as I hope they bring more material like that back to the set.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "reunion" which took place on Monday night. During "Detroit Rock City" appeared onstage with 'Blackie.' If you don't who or what 'Blackie' is, it's actually a legendary guitar from Ace's career, which has quite in interesting story. 'Blackie' was originally Ace's 1973, Gibson Les Paul Deluxe in a Tobacco Sunburst finish. He bought the guitar in late 1973 after receiving his first advance money from Casablanca records, in order to record the first KISS album. The guitar was his #1 guitar until his bought his first Cherry-burst Les Paul for the "Rock and Roll Over" tour in 1976. Apparently, Ace decided to have the Tobacco-burst converted into a black, double cut-away, in order to match the double cut-away basses Gene Simmons was playing at the time. This is where the story turns to legend. Story has it that Ace was so embarrassed by how he butchered his once favorite guitar, when the guys in KISS asked to see it, Ace told them it was stolen. Ace also claims he never had the guitar back in his possession after the conversion, although there is a famous photo of Ace and his guitar collection from 1977, where 'Blackie' is resting in between his legs. Current owner, Jeff Donohoe, brought the guitar with him from Canada and Ace played the guitar for the first time in years during "DRC." The guitar sounded amazing and was almost borderline feeding back during the whole song and when he played the main guitar solo in "Detroit," it sounded identical to the record. A great moment in rock history indeed.
In closing, although the "Ace Frehley" of today may not the same performer I once remember, it's still great to see Ace playing guitar with passion and fury, and as always, will be curious to see what his next move will be.