Few guitarists from the 1970s have had as deep an impact on rock music and pop culture at large as Ace Frehley. As lead guitarist for KISS, the “Space Ace” helped power an unprecedented rock circus that will probably never be matched for its combination of rock power and visual grandeur. Critics derided the band’s music as overly simplistic but legions of fans enlisted in the KISS Army, bought millions of albums and were blown away by legendary live shows whose spectacle has impacted the concert business ever since.
KISS weren’t just rock stars in the ‘70s, they were truly akin to larger than life superheroes. But the costumed personas and stage gimmicks wouldn’t have had the impact they did if there hadn’t been some great tunes and stellar musicianship to back it up. Ace was the one that gave KISS its sonic edge and the band was never quite as powerful after his departure. His infectious riffs and literally smoking guitar solos also helped power the alt-rock/grunge revolution of the early ‘90s, with a slew of those musicians citing KISS as their favorite band growing up and Ace as the one that inspired them to pick up the guitar. It’s a legacy few guitarists can match.
Earth is blessed to still have Ace around after he almost perished in a 1983 car wreck, an incident immortalized in “Rock Soldiers” from his 1987Frehley’s Comet album. A reunion with KISS from 1996-2002 was a dream come true for fans, but Frehley’s lifestyle differences with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley eventually found him out of the band again. It may well be for the best though, as KISS has become something of a caricature with dopplegangers in place of Ace and drummer Peter Criss. This in turn explains why Simmons and Stanley refused to play with Frehley and Criss when KISS received their overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. The fans would have gone bonkers and clamored for another reunion tour, so Gene and Paul threw a wet blanket on the proceedings.
Simmons likes to talk shit about Frehley being unreliable, but Ace has been clean and sober for almost a decade now and is the one who’s been putting out great new music on 2009’s Anomaly and 2014’s Space Invader albums. Now he’s readying a new album of classic rock covers titled Origins Vol. 1 that will enable fans to hear Ace tearing it up on some of the songs that inspired him back in the day.
The Space Ace’s winter tour touched down in Southern California on a Saturday night at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. It seemed an odd location at first, as glitzy Beverly Hills is rarely thought of as a rock mecca like nearby Hollywood. But the theater had the crisp sound system and clear acoustics for a winning evening, though they nearly ran out of beer before the show was over. Ace helped define what it means to party like a rock star in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the sober approach has had a most positive impact on his performance ability. His fans however clearly still like to get a good buzz on and the Saban Theater should take note and step up to meet the demand of a serious rock show.
Lita Ford opened the show with a rocking set that showed the former Runaway hasn’t lost her edge. There also sure aren’t many women in their 50s that could credibly rock a tight leather outfit like Lita still can, testament to the rejuvenating youthful elixir of rock ‘n’ roll music. Tunes like “Blueberry” and “Living Like a Runaway” rocked hard, yet 90 percent of the crowd oddly remained seated. This continued even during the speed metal of “Can’t Catch Me”, which Ford dedicated to the recently departed Lemmy Kilmister who co-wrote the song. The Runaways’ hit “Cherry Bomb” electrified the night, yet still couldn’t get the audience out of their seats. Only the set-closing hit “Kiss Me Deadly” inspired a few to rise and rock, and the song sure sounded better without the cheesy synths that hinder the studio recording.
The mostly seated patrons led to fear that this would be a sit-down show, which would have been against everything the KISS Army ever stood for. Cognitive dissonance therefore hung in the air during the setbreak, but the mood shifted as the lights dimmed and the instrumental “Fractured Mirror” from Frehley’s classic 1978 debut solo album played over the PA. There was a metaphysical buzz in the air as the space-time continuum started to ripple back toward that halcyon era. The time-travel trip was completed as Ace and his band hit the stage with “Rip It Out”, the opening rocker from that album. The older-leaning crowd rose as if they had indeed been transported back to their younger glory days, as the power of rock ‘n’ roll once again reared its rejuvenating force.
Frehley played only a handful of tunes from his solo catalog, offering fans a slew of crowd-pleasing KISS classics that kept the set charged with energy throughout. Hardcore fans certainly wouldn’t have minded some more of the newer tunes, but Ace was clearly having a blast focusing on the ‘70s material that made him a superstar. He also commented early on that there had been multiple UFO sightings reported in Texas after the band had kicked off their tour in the Lone Star State the previous weekend. This was no surprise to fans since Frehley has reported seeing a number of UFOs when he lived in upstate New York, not to mention claiming to be from another planet during KISS’ heyday.
The sizzling riffage of “Parasite” was an early highlight, with Ace and company laying down a mean groove that had heads banging and fists pumping. “Love Gun” had a similar effect as the ‘70s rock power consumed the theater like a time warp to the era of Dazed and Confused. “Snowblind” from Frehley’s ‘78 solo LP was even more powerful with its hard-hitting groove and mesmerizing psychedelia. Frehley ripped off a searing solo, displaying the wicked chops and melty riffage that launched a whole army of rock disciples.
A well-received cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” was offered up for a taste of the new album before Frehley returned to his own catalog for the anthemic “Rock Soldiers”. An inspiring singalong took place as the audience joined Frehley for the song’s defiantly transcendent conclusion: “When I think of how my life was spared/From that near fatal wreck/If the Devil wants to play his card game now/He’s gonna have to play without an Ace in his deck!!” The mystical musical power continued on “Strange Ways”, with Frehley leading another charged performance of an early KISS classic that continues to resonate with a timeless vibe.
1978’s smash hit “New York Groove” inspired another singalong, although the song’s arrangement seemed a bit off and was the only tune of the night that the band didn’t seem to have completely dialed in. The slight misstep was quickly forgotten though as Ace and the band launched into his classic personal anthem “Shock Me”. It was here that Ace brought out the iconic smoking Gibson Les Paul for another timeless moment of rock transcendence, shredding his most memorable guitar solo as smoke spewed from the guitar, leading to further improv that had the Frehley fanatics going wild. The set surged to a raucous conclusion with the equally classic “Cold Gin”, an ode to Ace’s hard-drinking days that has been a concert staple since KISS first hit the road in 1974.
The encore featured another KISS doubleshot as “Detroit Rock City” provided an appropriate Saturday night anthem before the hard-hitting “Deuce” from the band’s debut album wrapped the show in classic rock style. Throughout the night, Frehley delivered the goods song after song, ripping off the hot licks that inspired the next generation of guitar heroes while also delivering almost all of his most beloved classics with his typically affable wit and charm. KISS Army fans loyal to the band’s original lineup are strongly advised to catch the Space Ace when he touches down in your city, because no one else delivers these tunes with the otherworldly quality he does.