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Kiss me deadly: Gene Simmons, along with the rest of Kiss, play the Pepsi. Photo: Joe Putrock

By Bill Ketzer

Kiss, Aerosmith, Porch Ghouls
Pepsi Arena, Nov. 28

When I was in third grade, my father bought me Kiss Alive!, much to the chagrin of my mother. I don’t know why he felt it was choice listening for a 9-year-old, but there it was on my mom’s old hi-fi the next day: 14 songs about getting laid, and two that went into vivid detail about getting hammered. Unbeknownst to me, the double-live LP was the band’s last-ditch effort for decent record sales before Casablanca shit-canned them once and for all. So it could be reasoned that my father, who died of a heart attack when I was 11, played a small role in assuring that I would see Kiss blow the shit out of the Pepsi Arena years later. It gives me a little consolation, somehow.

Kiss are always blamed for putting their gimmick first—a true discredit to their songwriting prowess. I can already feel tomatoes aimed at my head, but it’s what separated them from the New York Dolls or any other glam band (beside Alice Cooper, of course). The boys from Queens could actually write, and we got the best of the best of these classics in this somewhat compressed version of their codpieces-to-the-grindstone affront. Amid a skin-flaying display of pyro, I pressed my arse into the faces of unfortunate others in the press pit and sang myself hoarse to “Let Me Go, Rock and Roll,” “Deuce,” the timeless “God of Thunder,” “Firehouse” and all the other songs that made my miserable life as depraved as possible for a third grader. I really can’t review Kiss with any real objectivity; I have seen them on down nights and it never mattered to me.

They may have reached a bit of a strange and disconcerting pinnacle, where they actually look less intimidating in full makeup than without, but I was glad when Gene Simmons literally drooled on me from the elevated platform at stage right, and made a small child in demon regalia sitting in the front row cry. Or when Paul Stanley shimmied over and played “I Want You” with the axe between his legs. I cheered Peter Criss on through his carpal-tunnel carefulness and heralded new lead guitarist Tommy Thayer’s licks even though I thought his old band (Black n’ Blue) were constipated and rueful. These are simply negligible foibles, so give me your poor, your weak, your “Rock and Roll All Nite,” your “Shout It Out Loud.” I should fare so well in my 50s.

For such a production, the turnaround time between bands was absurdly fast (less than 25 minutes). In that time, Kiss’ geometrical black-and-chrome amp land and Bush-administration firepower became Aerosmith’s minimalist rainbow-colored neon circus tent. This tour was billed as a double headliner, but what we saw were condensed versions of both headlining acts. Beantown’s Aerosmith got the short end of the stick in this respect, since the city of Albany makes you wrap it up at 11 PM. Unlike Kiss, who rely mainly on their powerful backlog of ’70s classics, Steven Tyler and company have plenty of latter-day hits to bust forth, thus they were more restrained, in order to accomplish what they could with limited time. Nonetheless, Tyler, Perry and the crew galloped in with their usual aplomb, the former immediately employing his rubber-lipped charisma and white-boy soft shoe—strutting and posing all night like he was on the runway at Prêt à Porter (despite his apparent frustration with choreographic staff).

The man still sounds fantastic. When I last saw the band in ’98 in support of Nine Lives, I bemoaned the lack of “the old stuff” and the infiltration of all the radio hits, which I felt didn’t really make for a cohesive, butt-kicking set, but I really must issue a retraction. While I am always desperate for nostalgia, like the opener “Mama Kin” and “Toys in the Attic,” it appears that the more recent items on the menu (“Jaded,” “Pink,” “Cryin’” and the like) have improved with age, especially in a live context. They did manage to try out a new blues tune (“Stop Messin’”) courtesy Joe Perry, and a searing version of the old standard “Baby Please Don’t Go.” There was no encore. After a rousing “Sweet Emotion,” they blew a befuddling amount of confetti into the air and left. I woke up the next day with a “wings” logo in my mouth.

And I even dug the opening act: Tennessee’s Porch Ghouls played some dirty old Delta-blues-cum-alt-nasty, but it came off horribly in a huge arena. The drummer scores points by using only snare, tambourine and—get this—a suitcase for a bass drum. A roadie came and took it off the stage and he was like, “Wait! That’s my bass, dude.” But my favorite part of the evening was being stuck in the parking garage for over an hour, blasting Kiss’s Dressed to Kill, rocking my pal Jeffy’s Dodge Dakota like a water wagon and contemplating how painfully easy it would be to rob any one of the 17 concert-tee bootleggers prowling around like crackheads in a concrete prison. That, and listening as the cars on all four levels joined together in single-note versions of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.” Knappy holidays. And merry Kissmas.

Don’t say a word: Rufus Wainwright at the Egg. Photo: John Whipple

Stage Fright

Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright
The Egg, Nov. 23

Rufus Wainwright’s 1998 debut marked the emergence of a formidable talent. Mixing operatic flourish with quirky pop smarts, he bore less of a connection to his father Loudon than to his mother, Kate McGarrigle, whose songs build on traditions tipped into gently idiosyncratic shapes. However, unlike the quieter public paths taken by his forebears, Rufus became intoxicated on both the adulation and the substances. Two years later, Poses found him celebrating pleasures of the flesh and the full glare of the spotlight. Wainwright’s amped-up habits in this relatively short time frame dropped him at a crossroads that found him opting for detox. The newly issued Want One (originally recorded as a double-disc set to be followed shortly by its companion, Want Two) is the impetus behind the current tour, which brought him and his seven-piece band to the Egg last weekend.

I saw Wainwright perform an opening set for his dad at Caffe Lena several years before his first album was released, and was astounded by his forceful resonance. Then only known as the partial subject of his father’s song “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” he sang his emerging songs with no fanfare other than what they generated on their own. Since that time there’s been an ever- widening gap between his stage manner and his music. His 90-minute set at the Egg found the complex arrangements of Want One thoughtfully rendered, in some cases even taking on an extra dollop of muscle. The sonic realm of each number created a transporting magic. However, that magic was dashed with distressing rapidity and consistency each time Rufus opened his mouth to speak.

He seems to believe that his every utterance shines with the same jeweled consistency of his songs. Wrong-o! His band includes several other second-generation performers: his sister Martha, Richard and Linda Thompson’s son Teddy, and Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s daughter Jenni. Rufus exhibited none of the fluent ease heard in any of those parents’ stage patter and storytelling. Furthermore, he’d utter but a fractured sentence before he laughed at his own self-referential witticisms. Mind you, lame talk is no shame, but the daunting contrast between the chatter and the music was like a flute of Dom Perignon followed by Mountain Dew. Moreover, his voice was straining for a few of the higher notes, or missing them all together. That can be fine and a seasoned performer will work around it. Rufus chose to draw attention to it by tossing asides and assorted nonverbal sounds into the midst of the songs.

Want One is one of the strongest releases of the year, a work of lasting beauty. Here’s my suggestion for anyone else similarly troubled by the issue I delineated above. Buy Rufus Wainwright’s CDs, but stay away from the shows until reports from the field indicate that he’s matured on the nonmusic front.

—David Greenberger

Borrowing Tool

A Perfect Circle, Year of the Rabbit
Palace Theatre, Nov. 26

Maynard James Keenan can do no wrong. Last week at the Palace Theatre, the Tool leader fronted his high-profile side project, A Perfect Circle, for which he displayed a jarring new persona to go with the melodically ambient, vaporishly emotional material of the Circle. If the sold-out audience had any qualms about Keenan’s jocular, borderline-cheesy personality, or if they noticed that some of the songs off the new disc, The 13th Step, lacked the intense dynamics of the project’s debut, they sure didn’t show it. Like Ian Curtis and very few others, Keenan has a preternatural ability to hold listeners in thrall—even, apparently, through a steady barrage of Michael Jackson jokes and condescending comments at the audience’s expense. “Clearly, I don’t care about my reputation,” he said early on, referring to the shaman-like persona he developed with Tool.

Keenan’s unexpected volubility was also at odds with the striking stage design, which featured a boxlike contraption within which the bewigged singer was silhouetted like a bizarre shadow puppet. Outside the box, geometric lighting rigs dazzled the eye with changing patterns of brilliant fuchsias, smoky grays, and sulfurous yellows. The pacing was similarly superb, with a quartet of cuts from Nom De Mer at the beginning to build enough momentum (a Keenan forte) to sustain the second half of the show through a slog of newer material. The musicianship of the Circle’s starry new additions—guitarist James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins, and former Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White (formerly known as Twiggy Ramirez)—was an improvement, especially White’s reverberating chug. But the incongruity of Josh Freeze’s power-bash percussion with Billy Howerdel’s ethereal guitar was a more glaring fault live. And as usual, the band members affected a distant reserve, remaining mostly motionless except for White’s twirling of his topknot.

As for Keenan, his molten phrasing and slow burns into pitch-perfect hysteria were as hypnotic as ever, especially for a snarling version of “The Package.” Other highlights included a beautifully cascading “Blue,” also from the new release, and just about everything from Nom De Mer, especially the groundbreaking first single, “Judith.” But that the show never coalesced into the cataclysmic experience that Tool are known to produce (and whose local appearance last year left the audience pinned to the back of their seats in awe) can be blamed squarely on Keenan, who seemed to be testing his omnipotent popularity while deliberately breaking the spell that his songwriting so sublimely casts.

Year of the Rabbit opened with an evocative but overly familiar set of shoegazing alternarock. It’s likely that the band got this coveted gig on the basis of containing former members of Failure, an outfit sharing a history with Tool.

—Ann Morrow

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