Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ace Frehley: Back in New York, Back on Top

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Ace Frehley in concert at the Nokia Theater, in his first New York appearance since the release of his latest effort, Anomaly. Musically, Anomaly ranks among the guitar legend’s best work both as a solo artist and with KISS, and arguably, it’s his most mature effort to date. Frehley set out to produce something in the spirit of his 1978 solo album and achieved just that—a solid, hard rock guitar album, that combines his signature style and a few tracks that showcase the broader range of his musical taste and influences. After twenty years, anything less would have been a major disappointment.


For me the real build up to the release of Anomaly began when Frehley played the same venue two years ago. He was in top form then, with a tight band, that rocked through a twenty-three song set list (yes, I'm counting the parts of songs from the medley as individual songs) that had the crowd blown away. I had anticipated another amazing show this time out, and that's just what he delivered with another twenty-plus set list that included the standard crowd pleasers—Rip it Out, Speedin' Back to My Baby, Rocket Ride, Shock Me, Deuce, Cold Gin, Love Gun—and a few surprises along the way. One of which was Talk to Me from KISS's Unmasked which had many in the audience staring at Ace's guitar on the video screens, wondering why the E string was pulled up over the toggle switch on his Les Paul (the song is played with open-G tuning, as is Two Sides of the Coin from the same album).

My only disappointment with the show was the decision to include just two songs from AnomalyPain in the Neck and Sister. Definitely the most "Ace" like tracks on the new album, but I’d loved to have seen him do Foxy & Free, Too Many Faces, or even the drop-D tuned Outer Space. Not that I'm saying it’s time to retire 2,000 Man or even New York Groove from the repertoire, but your new material rocks, Ace…

Still an awesome show which will surely surface in its entirety on YouTube for anyone that missed it. And if you'd like to get the feeling of jamming with Ace right in your own home, there's the recent DVD release of Ace Frehley: Behind the Player, which includes a mini-documentary, lessons for a pair of songs, and some great jam footage... but the stars of the show are Ace, his Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp, raw and unaccompanied.

Behind the Player

Growing up in the Bronx, I'd always felt a certain affinity for Ace Frehley. With all due respect to my grandfather, whose 1937 Gibson archtop was the first guitar I’d ever strummed, it was Frehley who made me want to learn to play. My first up close in-person encounter with Frehley was in the summer of 1983. I was a high school student in Westchester County and a few months prior my friends and I had heard that Frehley had been arrested in a now infamous DWI charge involving a DeLorean, the Bronx River Parkway, and a couple of County Police cruisers. Being fans and aspiring musicians at the time, Gerry Cusack, Frank John Hughes and I rode the #20 bus up Central Avenue to the court house in White Plains on the day Ace was to appear before the judge.

When we arrived, we learned there had been a postponement. Ace's trial would be the following month. When the later date rolled around, Gerry, Frank and I were there, again, but we found out from one of the court officers that Ace would not be appearing in the courtroom. The judge agreed to accept a plea in chambers. Disappointed, we left the courthouse. But I spotted a limousine on the other side of the street and wondered if that could be for Ace. We decided to wait a while and find out.

Before long, an ABC News van appeared. A camera crew had gotten out of the van along with a reporter and suddenly the side door to the courthouse opened. Someone signaled the waiting limo and out the door strolled Ace, flanked by his attorney and a court officer. The camera went on, the reporters asked questions, and as Ace waited for the limo to pull up, I stepped up and asked if I could have his autograph. He said, "Sure." He took my copy of the sheet music to his song Shock Me, which was the first KISS song in which he sang lead vocal, and signed it for me. He handed it back and as he stepped into the back of the limo, he gave a thumbs up to my friends and me before driving off.

That had been my closest brush with Ace Frehley til that time, and although it would not be my last, it was also not my first. Years earlier, while KISS was on a world tour promoting their fifth studio album, Rock and Roll Over, I actually had an occasion to be inside Ace Frehley's car. The father of one of my sister's friends worked at a Cadillac dealership in Yonkers. It was the dealership where Ace had purchased a new silver Cadillac Seville. While KISS was touring though, the dealership had stored the vehicle in its garage, and so one night we were taken to see Ace's car.

In retrospect it was no big deal, really. But to a boy net yet ten years old, it was a very big deal. I got to see Ace's DMV registration — which said Paul Frehley — and something which puzzled me as much then as it does now… there was a Kojak doll in the glove compartment.

A few short months before that, I had seen my very first KISS concert. It also happened to be their first performance at Madison Square Garden. That concert left an impression on me, to be sure. In the years after that, straight through high school, I’d been to dozens of concerts, and no arena ever seemed as big, no music ever as loud, and no band ever as lively as KISS at the Garden on their Destroyer tour.

In the mid-1980s, KISS leased a warehouse in the West 30s of Manhattan, where they stored costumes, some instruments, and other stage and concert gear. My friend Frank's dad was a vice president of the company that rented the storage space to KISS. Every so often, Frank and I would head into Manhattan from Westchester, to browse the music stores on 48th Street, to look at our dream guitars and drum kits. Occasionally we'd hook up with Frank's dad, who would take us to lunch, and then to the warehouse, where he’d give us a VIP tour through KISS's stuff. The tour was usually preceded by a warning “not to take anything”, which we heeded more often than not.

It's great to see an artist who has had ups and downs back doing what he does best and doing it so well. I hope Frehley keeps the momentum going and that we don't have to wait another twenty years for another great album.