Always a good draw on their own, the pairing of Kiss' 40th anniversary tour and Def Leppard's hit-filled Heroes Tour (named for the tour's involvement with the Wounded Warrior Project) filled PNC Music Pavilion with generations of rock fans Saturday night despite rain.
Having both played swelling 20-plus song headlining sets before, the co-headlining format kept each band's set to 14-songs each. While this meant dropping a lot of fan favorites, - no "Strutter," "Beth," "Crazy Crazy Nights," or "100,000 Years" in Kiss' case for instance - having shorter, more concise sets seemed to conserve the overall energy especially in the older band's case.
When I saw the original lineup of Kiss at Charlotte Coliseum in October 2000, two days before drummer Peter Criss quit for good, I felt like I was watching them in slow motion - not the high energy showmen I'd been watching on TV since I was three. I felt a similar detachment when they played Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre with Aerosmith on another co-headlining jaunt in September 2003, but Saturday felt like a return to form. Maybe that's due to the outdoor setting or that I have much better seats now, but maybe it's due to a show that fires quickly (and literally) without filler and doesn't completely drain its aging performers.
Following a set by female-fronted Canadian metal band Kobra and the Lotus (who record for Gene Simmons' label), Def Leppard took the stage morphing its own intro music (The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again") into "Let It Go." It was odd to see the usual headliner relegated to the front portion of the stage. Fans are accustomed to seeing them prowl a two and three tiered stage. Kiss' stage didn't use multi-level walkways either, instead both bands relied on multiple screens and lights and, in Kiss' case, pyro and an impressive moving giant spider light rig.
The appearance of guitarist Vivian Campbell - who is undergoing a new form of chemo therapy to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma as part of a clinical trial in Los Angeles - was the first thing I noticed. Although bald - far from the dark curly mane fans have seen since his Whitesnake days - and wearing sunglasses, the newly married Northern Irishman looked fit and smiled without a hint of illness.
For a band in its fifties, all the members looked incredibly well. Baring his muscular chest through a black vest, guitarist Phil Collen doesn't look a day older than he did in the "Pyromania" videos aside from a few wrinkles. The still babyfaced bassist Rick Savage paid tribute to Tommy Ramone in a cut-up white Ramones' t-shirt. In their bedazzled rock wear he and singer Joe Elliott, who traded a white leather military style jacket for a longer black one (just like Lionel Richie did Thursday), must keep stores like Revolution in business.
Def Leppard plowed through hits "Animal," "Love Bites," "Foolin'," "Let's Get Rocked" and "Hysteria." They pulled out acoustic guitars for "Two Steps Behind" and the massive sing-along "Bringing on the Heartbreak." Its abbreviated set relied heavily on "Hysteria."
"Rocket" was the visual standout with the band performing before screens of tiny televisions (pictured above), but "Armageddon It" held the most thematic weight as statistics about world hunger, HIV, the environment, and cancer, ticked up on a giant screen behind them. The climbing stats pitted the number of overweight people in the world against the number of hungry and the rate at which forests are being pummeled with the time with which the world's oil will run out - all quite interesting stuff. I'm not sure how many in the audience - fists raised, singing along wholeheartedly - were "really getting it," but it was quite a powerful way to present a 25-year-old pop-metal hit.
The only time Elliott's voice faltered was during the encore of "Photograph." The entire band kept the "oohooohs" on the lower end. But after a spot-on show, his struggling with range could be easily forgiven.
After a brisk 30-minute changeover (thank you, crew) which included the introduction of the Wounded Warrior roadies (veterans hired for the tour) and an award presentation to retired Marine Sargent Tim Aldridge (who received a house in Waxhaw), Kiss blew up the stage with deafening fireworks. I was glad the children in the audience, which there were many, wore ear protection. White streamers shot from the sky. At this point while holding my five-year-old, I was clobbered by an adult man who charged three rows from behind to grab for streamers. With my lip stinging, I was left thinking, "Man, it's a streamer."
"Psycho Circus" gave way to "Deuce" and "Shout It Out Loud." Paul Stanley bragged of the band's recent Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame induction and thanked fans for their persistence in securing Kiss' nomination. He preened and posed for pictures on the left of the stage as Gene took lead vocals on the apocalyptic "War Machine" (a photographer/music writer friend recently told me this is why he likes shooting Kiss - he knows he'll get the shot).
With the addition of fire and booming fireworks, the sound wasn't as clear as during Def Leppard's set, but the production is as much a part of the show as the music is with Kiss. The group hit on all the familiar spots. Simmons blew fireballs from the tip of a sword, he spat blood, and flew like a bat into the rafters for "God of Thunder." He looked truly possessed.
Stanley zoomed over the crowd to a rotating platform in the middle of the pavilion for "Love Gun." He must do yoga. He wiggled in his new sequined striped jumpsuit and fringed boots (he and Gene wore revamped versions of their classic costumes), played guitar through his legs, and teetered on one knee.
Although some hits were obviously missing, the Stanley-led 1990 pop anthem "Hide Your Heart" was a surprise that won over the crowd. It didn't get the mass sing-along of "I Love It Loud," but fans definitely remembered all the words.
The show ended with the expected "Detroit Rock City" and "Rock n' Roll All Night." Die-hards - many with faces painted and fully costumed - were undoubtedly left wanting more. I have no doubt they'll get it - next year. Although Kiss has threatened to quit before, neither band shows signs of stopping.
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