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Alice Cooper, Ace Frehley @ Nokia Theater 10/28/09

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Forty horrifying years into his career, Alice Cooper is still sacrificing himself to audiences on a nightly basis. Not content to give his life for show business just once, in his current Theater Of Death tour, which stopped at the Nokia Theater, he endures a beheading, a hanging, and a blood-spewing run-through with a dozen swords. If it gets a raised fist and a “woo!”, he will spare himself from nothing.

That kind of old-fashioned determination has earned him a place in the hearts of many Americans as a personal bogeyman, an envoy into the realm of dark fantasy. Even though he was no more violent or antisocial than a good monster movie, kids internalize music in a way that doesn’t often happen with films. (The same could be said for NWA, many years later.) But all the ooga-booga posturing would be meaningless if he didn’t have tunes. The music on the Alice Cooper albums made from 1971-74 predict heavy metal as it would appear ten years in the future - heavy guitars, crunchy, memorable hooks and big choruses that give the finger to authority. To a kid growing up on comics, junk food and rock and roll during the seventies, there was nothing cooler.

Today, most of these gags are played for comedy rather than horror. But the songs retain their dark magic in the hands of a very capable young band, and if the setlist is a bit predictable, the performances are strong all around. Comparing the show at the Nokia to some footage from the Lace And Whiskey tour in 1978, he actually looks healthier and stronger now than he did then (decades of clean living can do that for you, I guess.) If he’s lost the power to surprise us much in these times, he’s instead become a model of reliable quality and consummate professionalism.

It was a little odd that “School’s Out” was chosen to open AND close the show. Maybe they broke it out a second time so Slash could come out and play on it during the encore. Great a track as it is, there were several expected favorites that got skipped (“Dead Babies” and “Elected” were particularly missed), presumably for lack of time. Only about three songs from his recent efforts made it onto the list, none of which was the brilliant “Lost In America.” But despite the limited set list, Cooper still delivered a gaily grisly reminder of the way rock and roll show business used to be, killer hooks matched with a point of view and something flashy to look at.

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And on the topic of flash… consider Ace Frehley, former lead guitarist for the band Kiss. Kiss came out just a few years after Cooper, taking his general approach toward the concert-as-spectacle and boiling it down even further, taking away the storytelling aspect but leaving the explosions and the costumes, building up a live show with all the subtlety of a fireworks display. But again, they had to have songs in order for the whole thing to work. Frehley didn’t actually write most of those songs, but the ones he did - “Cold Gin”, “Shock Me” and “Rocket Ride” for starters - were all highlights of the albums they appeared on. Of the four solo albums made by Kiss members in 1978, his was unquestionably the best one, in fact the only one I can imagine listening to for pleasure at this point.

And his unique, fumbling guitar style was essential to the band’s sound; when Kiss replaced him with heavy metal shredder guys in the eighties, the old songs never sounded quite right again. The playing was too precise, too correct. Ace wasn’t formulaic. He didn’t seem like he was smart enough to apply formulas. He just went for it, in the only way he knew how, and it came out sounding different from anybody else. It may not be the most technically great guitar playing ever laid down, but it’s the way you have to play to make it sound like Kiss. In their current formation, seen at the Staples Center last week, Kiss employs a dead ringer that mimics those solos, the laconic vocal stylings, and even the clumsy way he flails around the stage, to the smallest detail. Even when he’s not physically there, they have to acknowledge him as terribly important.

Now touring as a solo act behind his new album Anomaly, he was able to provide a lot of the most thrilling moments from a Kiss show, despite the lack of explosions on stage. There was makeup though; in a hilarious touch. everyone on stage was wearing the infamous Space Ace design, except for Frehley himself. I have to wonder if there’s a kiss-off to Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in that gesture. “OK, now that just anyone can wear that stuff…”

Stripped of all the outsized visuals that usually accompany the songs, the show demonstrated what a canny pop songwriter Frehley always was. The tracks were fun, crafted with garage-rock simplicity, performed with swaggering confidence, and overlaid with taut, melodic solos. Tracks from the new album show that his instincts are still alive and well, and while ripping through the oldies, he still sounds like his old self. His band both looks and sounds a little like Redd Kross, great players with an acrid mix of sweetness and raunch.

Both Kiss and Alice Cooper have been overdue for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame for over a decade, though the former was finally tossed a nomination this year. It remains to be seen whether, if finally inducted, Stanley and Simmons will bring their chicken-suit wearing doppelgangers to the proceedings and leave Ace out in the cold. But considering the Hall is voted on by most of the same self-proclaimed “authorities” on rock and roll that brought you Rolling Stone Magazine, they should both know that they’re in good company with their long-held rejection. These were not critics’ bands; they were peoples’ bands, ones that got famous in spite of rock critics, not because of them. Their very existence as successful touring acts in 2009 probably makes those people that wish to consider themselves the arbiters of Acceptable Rock kind of nervous. It’s a sign that they can’t be invalidated, that their place in the music’s history cannot be unwritten, no matter how many institutions are created to exclude them. The Hall of Fame is, after all, just another form of authority. Give it the finger.