Photo: Greg M. Schwartz

Ace Frehley Summons His Rock Soldiers to the People’s Republic of Berkeley

The inimitable Ace Frehley rocks Berkeley with the timeless classics and incendiary lead guitar that launched an army of guitar players and rock 'n' roll devotees.

It’s been 40 years since rock superstars KISS flipped the script in 1978 by simultaneously releasing solo albums from all four members. The unprecedented strategy was a particular success for lead guitarist Ace Frehley, whose debut solo album was not only the top seller of the four but has stood the test of time as a genuine classic rock gem from the era. Frehley’s career has been something of a rollercoaster ride since he first left KISS in 1982, but the fact that he’s still here rocking in 2018 is a gift from the rock gods since he almost died in a 1983 car wreck.

A highly anticipated reunion with KISS in 1996 provided a tour that dreams were made of, but Frehley’s hard-partying ways eventually led to another departure from the band. He’s been sober for more than a decade now though and has turned out great new material with 2009’s stellar Anomaly album and 2014’s strong follow-up Space Invader. Set to release his next album with Spaceman this October, the one and only “Space Ace” is back on the road, and there’s a devoted audience of his rock soldiers gathering at the Cornerstone on this Monday evening.

There aren’t many rockers who’ve claimed to be from outer space, but that’s the persona Frehley developed with KISS in the ’70s when the quartet were larger than life rock stars with a truly otherworldly vibe. With a strong interest in science fiction and UFOs that’s led to a number of songs with a space theme, it’s not hard to imagine Frehley might actually have a starseed soul that’s not of this Earth. His influential guitar work with KISS inspired countless fans to pick up the guitar themselves, helping to catalyze the alt-rock/grunge music revolution of the early ’90s where many of the era’s top guitarists credited Ace with inspiring them to take up the instrument. And isn’t that what otherworldly avatars are tasked to do?

The Cornerstone is packed as showtime approaches, and while the room itself doesn’t have much ambiance, the adjacent restaurant and tap room does serve some 42 different craft beers that can be taken into the concert space including the delicious hazy IPA from Berkeley’s own Fieldwork Brewing. Ace and the band waste no time getting right down to business as they take the audience back to 1974 with the heavy riffage of “Parasite” from KISS’ second album Hotter Than Hell.

The vibe surges as the band rocks out on “Rip It Out” and “Snow Blind” from the 1978 solo album, with the latter conjuring an existential psychedelic trip as Ace sings of being “lost in space” and wondering, “Am I ever gonna get to where I’m gonna go, maybe tomorrow, maybe next summer…” The classic “Love Gun” keeps the KISS Army devotees rocking out before Ace throws in a curveball with his cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” from his 2016 Origins Vol.1 album of classic rock covers. The highlights keep coming with the anthemic “Rock Soldiers” from 1987’s Frehley’s Comet album, a biographical fan favorite that details Ace’s flirtation with death and the devil in that 1983 DeLorean wreck.

The flux capacitor keeps on fluxing as Ace dials it back to 1974 again with the seminal “Strange Ways”, a tune with a sublimely heavy groove that can get Gen-Xers flashing back to their earliest memories of falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll and the guitar player who seemed like he was indeed from another world with his melty riffage that seems to transcend the mere Earthly realm. Frehley’s 1978 hit “New York Groove” lights up the Cornerstone like a ’70s disco with a flashing yellow neon disco ball and a sing-a-along on the funky tune that has become one of the era’s most beloved classics.

Ace injects some of his patented amiable banter to introduce the next classic as he asks the audience if anyone saw the crazy dust storm that had recently hit Phoenix, Arizona (which indeed looked like an apocalyptic scene straight out of Mad Max Fury Road.) “There’s all kinds of crazy weather going on these days”, Ace continues, noting the crazy wildfires, hurricanes, floods and tsunamis that have been plaguing the Earth in this troubling era of anthropomorphic climate change that threatens humanity. “But none of that phases me… because you’ve got to shock me,” Ace concludes as he launches into perennial fave favorite “Shock Me”. It wasn’t the hit that “New York Groove” was, but for many fans the track from KISS’ 1977 Love Gun album is the quintessential Ace song. The live version from 1978’s KISS Alive II also features one of the greatest guitar solos ever released on an album and the song sends an electrifying surge through the Cornerstone here.

There are still few spectacles in rock that can match witnessing Ace deliver the epic “Shock Me” guitar solo with his smoking Gibson Les Paul, which he does here as the space-time continuum swirls across four decades. “I still got it don’t I?” Ace asks rhetorically because the answer is most definitely affirmative.

The anthemic “Cold Gin” then brings the set to a climactic conclusion with Ace’s infectious ode to getting hammered on cheap booze from KISS’ 1974 debut. The fact that Ace is now sober is irrelevant to the song’s impact since many in the audience were kids who had never even tasted alcohol when they first started singing along to the song in their bedrooms in the ’70s. Ace lets the audience sing the verses since they know every word, with the song’s timeless staying power resonating across the decades.

A raucous double encore of “Detroit Rock City” and “Deuce” then provides another double shot of classic KISS for all the rock soldiers. The 90-minute set has been very similar to what Ace has been touring behind over the past couple years, a little surprising considering how much great material he has to choose from. But the reality is that the fans want to hear the classic cuts and hey, Ace is 67 Earth years old and still rocking out like a man half his age. There are few other guitarists in music history who can match his legacy, much less that are still rocking the planet like he is.