Ace Frehley - Motor City Food and Music Fest
Farmington Hills, Michigan
Sunday August 28, 2016
By Jeremy Porter
On a warm & humid Sunday night in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Michigan, the Spaceman himself - original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley - landed with his band to close out the first Motor City Food and Music Festival. The setting was the parking lot of an old Sam’s Club that has now been converted into the shiny, slick, enormous Motor City Harley Davidson store, and the festival served as the grand opening celebration. Those driven to purchase VIP seating enjoyed rows of folding chairs in a fenced-in area in front of the stage, while those of us less-convinced it would be necessary stood behind, about 25 yards back. It didn’t seem to matter much - the vantage point proved adequate and our sightlines were fine. The 4-year old blonde kid with a mohawk and full Spaceman face paint, however, was glad to be up front with his dad, both clearly loving every moment.
Just after 7:30, Fractured Mirror, the instrumental closing track from Frehley’s 1978 KISS “solo” album (his career high-watermark), faded in over the PA as he & his band gathered behind the stacks and walked out on stage. “How ya’ doin’ Detroit Rock City?” he asked in his trademark New York accent as they broke into Rip It Out, the opening track from the same record. OK, I’ll confess: I had goosebumps. I spent YEARS of my early youth locked in my bedroom listening to that album and the KISS records that preceded and followed it - over & over & over again. Ace was always our favorite - my friends and I. We liked The Demon too, and the Catman and the Starchild a little less, but Ace was the coolest.
Opening with Rip It Out set the bar pretty high and established a momentum difficult to maintain. The set was a bit of a roller coaster ride - with other peaks like the Alive II-side 4 studio gem Rocket Ride and the unexpected Strange Ways from 1974’s Hotter Than Hell, and a coupla stinkers too, like the terrible song Toys from the 2014 Space Invader record and an unnecessary, extended bass solo integrating bits of God of Thunder, Black Sabbath’s NIB, and the theme from Halloween. I was probably in the minority, rolling my eyes when they went into classic KISS songs like Deuce, Love Gun and Detroit Rock City. All fantastic songs and crowd favorites - but none written by Ace or executed with the tenacity they deserved. All of this fluff was especially disappointing when there are several other options he could have pulled from his own catalog - including the great track Cold Gin, which Gene always sang, but Ace wrote, and other gems from that '78 solo album like What’s On Your Mind or Speeding Back to My Baby.
Ace always had the look and the guitar chops, but he never had the vocal pipes of Stanley or Simmons. His voice always worked when called upon, though, thanks to a charm and character that matched his goofy, fucked-up personality. On this night, however, his vocals often came across as weak and tired, almost spoken at times, compared to the more energetic performances we’re familiar with from albums past. Maybe it was exhaustion from the road, or perhaps at 65 he (understandably) just doesn’t have the wind he once did, but it seemed like a little more effort at the microphone would have gone a long way. The drummer sang a few songs and had a more traditional and energetic rock and roll delivery (think Derek St. Holmes meets Paul Stanley), but less historical correlation and therefore less ultimate command of the material than Ace.
The band was loose, occasionally to a fault, sounding at times a bit unrehearsed and sloppy. At their best they cast a very New York sleaze-rock shadow and came across as a cool, modern version of the groups that defined that city’s punk-glam sound in the '70s. Ace’s 3-pickup Les Paul cut through the mix nicely and he brought out the smoldering, smoking guitar for his extended solo and worked in bits of his Alive II Shock Me solo to the crowd’s delight. For a brief moment, I was myself transported to the upper deck of the Houston Summit in 1977, looking down through the clouds of marijuana smoke at this alien being from outer space ripping an amazing lead from a guitar about to explode in front of 16,000 fans.
Despite the super-fan dissection of the setlist and the at-times lackluster and sloppy performance, it was a fun set. I mean, who doesn’t get a little nostalgic when their childhood hero is a few feet in front of them for the first time (I never saw KISS with Ace), or nod their head forward and back to the opening chords of New York Groove? Can’t say I’d go too far out of my way to see him again, or pay that $30 to be 15 feet closer, but it was a beautiful Michigan night, the price was right, and those familiar songs and great riffs are just ingrained into my blood.
Fractured Mirror (Pre-recorded)
Rip It Out
Emerald (Thin Lizzy cover)
New York Groove
2 Young 2 Die
Ace Frehley Guitar Solo
Detroit Rock City
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos. Follow them on Facebook to read his road-blog chronicling their adventures and see his photo series documenting the disgusting bathrooms in the dives they play. He's a whiskey snob, an unapologetic fan of "good" metal, and couldn't really care less about the UofM - OSU rivalry since he once saw The Stones at the Horseshoe. Still, go blue.