"Tonight we are celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of rock 'n' roll!" Stanley whinnies at Germain Amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio, on a recent August night, where KISS' blockbuster tour with Aerosmith plays to a packed house of more than 20,000.
The crowd is a mix of beer guts and baby faces. A gray-haired dad in grease paint tugs along his two waist-high sons, one donning Peter Criss' whiskers, the other a Gene Simmons wig that looks like a rogue Brillo pad. A very pregnant thirtysomething rocks on her heels next to a young dude with lightning bolts tattooed on his head.
Those in the crowd are too busy blowing the foam off their beers to pay much attention to Saliva, the opening act, but as the sun sets, the anticipation rises for two of rock's biggest draws. Three decades into his career, Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton is still getting used to playing in front of such sizable crowds.
"I get up on the stage, and I'm too glad to be there -- I have a blast -- but I always feel like, Wow, I wish I could hang back, rock out, and just play,'" Hamilton says. "I always felt that I didn't have the natural rock persona. But you have to address the fact that there's a bunch of people there, and you want to make a good impression, so it's always a challenge."
Especially when the band going on before you spends 90 minutes spitting blood and setting stuff on fire. Taking the stage, engulfed in dense clouds of dry ice as thick as Paul Stanley's wilderness of exposed chest hair, KISS descends from two stories up in the rafters to begin their set with a heart-palpitating "Detroit Rock City." By the band's second song, "Deuce," Simmons is tonguing his bass and thrusting his codpiece toward the crowd. The band is backed by three tiers of blinking amps, and the beginning of nearly every song is punctuated by explosions approximating howitzer fire.
During Simmons' showstopping "God of Thunder," the towering bassist is elevated atop the tour's monstrous lighting rig, where he growls and grimaces like a grizzly with gas pain. The band's set winds down with a veritable fireworks display during "Lovegun," showering the stage in multicolored sparks. The bar has clearly been set for Aerosmith.
"Any band is going to be challenged by the fact that the band going on before them has these dramatic theatrical visuals going on, because you see the way the audience responds to it," Hamilton says. "Everybody says, Oh, it's all about the music,' but you see the audience love this stuff and have fun watching it, and you want them to have fun watching you, so maybe you think, Oh shit, what do we do now?' But we're really comfortable with how well we're playing, and we've got different aspects of our show that get us out there, too."
Indeed, Aerosmith performs with a 60-foot catwalk that juts halfway through the pavilion. The band's Michelin-lipped front man, Steven Tyler, wastes little time bounding down the ramp during the band's set-opening "Mama Kin," where he shakes his bony hips next to guitarist Joe Perry, who's decked out in shades and a Kangol cap.
The band is backed by a colossal video screen and an array of fluorescent lights, but it leaves most of the big-budget effects to Simmons and company. Aerosmith's appeal hardly suffers, though, as the group turns in a sweaty, libidinal performance, all heaving chests and panting females. Whereas KISS plays material that is, at minimum, two decades old, Aerosmith remains very much a contemporary band, still capable of chart-topping albums. Because of this, Aerosmith's set feels much more immediate and relevant. Latter-day hits, such as "Love in an Elevator" and "What It Takes," work well alongside such debauched classics as "Toys in the Attic" and "Back in the Saddle."
What unites both sets, however, is a fondness for larger-than-life rock 'n' roll that has been somewhat forsaken in recent years. After Nirvana set a dour, introspective tone at the beginning of the '90s, Aerosmith was one of the few bands that capitalized on the dearth of ready-and-willing rock stars. The band went on to sell another 20 million records by the end of the decade. And when KISS re-formed its original lineup in '96 with makeup intact, it joined Aerosmith as one of the few acts that embraced the excess and egoism that have long defined the biggest and best bands.
"There's always been the idea of Let's go to a party and rock out' -- it just depends on how much attention it gets," Hamilton says. "There's a tremendous amount of identifying with music that's about feeling like shit, but when people go to a concert, they want to have fun. Maybe when they're at home, they want to really get into the down, dark moods of what they're listening to, but when they go to a show, they want to have a good time."
And that's what this billing delivers, with ass-shaking panache. It's big, dumb fun, the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a traveling Fourth of July, wedded to little more than drinking beer and watching things explode.
"We love it. We always want to have great lights and some cool-looking effects," Hamilton says. "A lot of bands reject that and say, No, no, that's shallow, that's just like a carnival.' But we love the way it goes with the music. It's celebratory, it's fun. That's what we're all about."