KISS returns to Pittsburgh 1 more time
The year was 1975 when renowned Pittsburgh concert promoter and “Behind the Stage Door” author Rich Engler says music history flashed before his eyes.
He was surprised at how a relatively unknown band he booked to play the 3,700-seat Stanley Theater for its first Pittsburgh show carried itself like a top touring act, he says. The band requested a prepared lunch and an airport limousine while hauling extreme pyrotechnics and other special effects that even the day’s most popular bands did not offer.
Instead of sending a limousine, Engler sent his wife, Cindy, to retrieve the band members in his Rolls Royce, who shielded their faces in a mad dash to the car.
“But nobody knows who they are,” says the promoter’s wife. “They could walk down any street in Pittsburgh and no one would recognize them.”
That band was KISS, and after completing 23 Pittsburgh-area shows over the last four-plus decades, it brings its End of the Road farewell tour to the PPG Paints Arena March 30 in anticipation of hanging up its costumes and platform boots for good.
Long Pittsburgh history
KISS’ 44 years of Pittsburgh blood-spitting, crowd-flying, guitar-smoking fun has been filled with memorable moments, but in what might be the one most demonstrative of KISS’ hard sound, dramatic theatrics and pure power, founding member Paul Stanley says the band once short-circuited the Civic Arena before a show’s start, forcing them to reschedule.
“We fried the building out,” Stanley says.
KISS may have already blown out Pittsburgh’s fuses, but Tommy Thayer, the band’s current lead guitarist, says the current tour is bigger and more explosive than anything the group has ever done in its seasoned history.
“This tour features all the latest, newest staging and production and automation,” he says. “Nothing like we’ve done before. KISS always has been known for a great show, and a big show, but this is just even beyond that in the epic sense.”
Amplifying its stage presence in its final tour is fitting because Steel City residents have always appreciated KISS’ eye-catching theatrics even more so than its classic FM radio staples like “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
WDVE DJ Sean McDowell says, “A KISS concert is fun; it’s a spectacle, visually.”
McDowell’s WDVE colleague Val Porter says she has seen KISS perform live four or five times. “It’s hook filled with rock tunes, fire, confetti, blood spewing. It really is a big party that no one wants to leave.”
Perhaps the most iconic aspect of the band’s shows is its trademark costumes and face paint, which the people of Pittsburgh still wear to this day.
Former Pittsburgh Penguin Robert Bortuzzo says, when he was 23 years old, he, along with then- teammates and fellow KISS fans Beau Bennett, Nick Spaling and Paul Martin, dressed as the band for a Halloween function in 2014.
“My favorite part of it all was driving through the South Side blasting KISS in full costume at around 4 in the afternoon on our way to the team party,” says the defenseman, who impersonated Paul Stanley’s Starchild. “I remember running into our strength coach on the sidewalk while ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You’ was blasting. It was a pretty big hit at the Halloween party.”
Millennials are fans
Thayer says that millennials like Bortuzzo following KISS is not unusual because while the band has retained many of its early followers, one of its core strengths is expanding its fan base.
“The thing that I’ve noticed, and continues to overwhelm me, is the KISS fan base continues to evolve,” Thayer says. “The key is to continue to get new young fans, and I think we do that almost better than anyone.”
Into the music field
For other Pittsburgh-area residents, the characters and stagecraft of KISS have more than sheer entertainment value. They were a gateway drug into the music business itself.
“I used to go as Gene Simmons for Halloween,” says Fred Bohn Jr., the owner of Attic Records in Millville. “Love Gun was the first record I ever bought. Got it at Kmart when it was brand new.”
Unlike Bohn, Billy Greer of Harrison City says he has yet to take the makeup off.
He began following the band in 1975 when he heard “Rock and Roll All Nite” for the first time on a jukebox in his father’s volunteer fire department at the age of 3, he says. Today, he plays Paul Stanley’s Starchild in DEUCE, a Pittsburgh-based tribute band.
Still intriguing, innovative
“You’ll see four different generations at our shows,” he says. “People that don’t even like KISS’ music still go to and enjoy the shows because they’re intriguing.”
Dr. Marcelle Pierson, who teaches a Heavy Metal Music course at the University of Pittsburgh, says that KISS’ stagecraft is as trend setting as it is intriguing.
“From almost the first of their stage performances, KISS incorporated a certain strain of theatricality that was incredibly influential,” she says. “They incorporated costuming and fire-breathing theatrics that inspired, among others, a number of strains of heavy metal.”
Thayer concurred about the band’s influence on live theatrics, saying: “If you go to any concert today, whether it’s country or rap or rock, you see the DNA of a KISS pyrotechnics show. Everybody’s got confetti and all this kind of stuff.”
Thayer added that in addition to the music, the band’s flash is what will ensure KISS remains the impactful cultural force it is today even after it stops touring.
“I think what has carried KISS for four or five decades now is the timeless appeal, the imagery, the characters,” he says. “It doesn’t ever go out of style. It’s timeless and classic, and I think that’s really the thing that carries KISS on and on. And probably into the future.”
Pittsburgh music fans have a chance to experience the hype March 30, as the band visits a city that factored in its history for what may be the final time.
The farewell tour coming to the PPG Paints Arena will not be as intimate as KISS’ first show in the Steel City, featuring an unhung backdrop at the side of a drum riser. That would not be the KISS way. Forty-four years later, the band members’ plans finally match up with everyone else’s expectations, and they say they are prepared to go off with a bang, delivering the most powerful, over the top KISS rock and roll party yet.