Live Review: Kiss at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino

It's been nearly 19 years since Kiss set the wheels in motion for a reunion tour featuring the group's original lineup with a memorable performance on MTV's "Unplugged." There, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss joined Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Singer and then-guitarist Bruce Kulick for a rambunctious double-drum-kit encore, a thrilling moment that connected the band's celebrated past with its present while also hinting at exciting future plans ahead.

The timing of the group’s first full acoustic performance on terra firma since then is therefore quite odd, for as Simmons and Stanley continue to remind us on a regular basis, this is the year that Kiss has finally earned entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, they’ve famously declined to perform during the induction ceremony in protest over the Rock Hall’s refusal to let Singer and current guitarist Tommy Thayer take the stage alongside Frehley and Criss, but by revisiting the acoustic format on Thursday night at a California casino (Kissino?), Kiss curiously resurrects the memories of their MTV broadcast and subsequent reunion at a time when they clearly want anything but.

Accordingly, it’s no surprise that no additional “members of the family” take the stage during the group’s 110-minute performance, their first full non-Kruise set without makeup since they taped “Unplugged.” Notably, it’s also the first Kiss concert without production since another casino gig 11 years ago, when the group played an explosion-free Las Vegas one-off shortly after the Rhode Island nightclub The Station burned to the ground as a result of a pyrotechnic mishap during a Great White concert, killing dozens.

The setting: Located about an hour outside of Los Angeles, the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino has all the trappings of its Nevada counterparts – namely, clouds of cigarette smoke, a gluttenous all-you-can-eat buffet, chirping slot machines everywhere you look and an overall lingering sense of despair.

Meanwhile, the casino’s concert hall – configured tonight to hold 2,500 fans – has all the ambiance of a hotel conference room. It’s a venue better suited for sales meetings than rock shows, but when the stage lights dim and the curtain opens as Kiss launches into “Comin’ Home” (the song with which they also opened “Unplugged”), you realize you’re witnessing Kisstory and all is forgiven.

A glowing logo behind the seated quartet provides the only stage decor. In sharp contrast to his usual kabuki monster costume, Simmons – who manages to avoid wagging his legendary tongue even once during tonight’s performance – sports a blazer for the first few songs. (Apparently he can’t take the stage without shoulder pads of some sort.)

The format: Although the show was promoted as “An Acoustic Evening of Stories & Songs” (presumably to differentiate it from two upcoming area performances with Def Leppard), the stage banter is kept to a relative minimum, perhaps due to Stanley’s recurring vocal issues following his 2011 throat surgery. He’s surprisingly soft-spoken tonight, the polar opposite of his usual rock n’ roll tent revivalist preacher act. Still, he does share a few interesting anecdotes – that Simmons got the inspiration for “Calling Dr. Love” from The Three Stooges; that the band borrowed liberally from Mountain and The Who on “Goin’ Blind” and “Love Her All I Can,” respectively; and that he once kept a notebook of potential song titles from which Simmons “stole” “Christine Sixteen.”

The good: Just under half the songs performed tonight were included in the “MTV Unplugged” set list. Except for backdoor love ode “Nothin’ To Lose,” which falls flat without the energy Criss injected into the 1995 performance, all hold up. As for the other half of the set, it’s a treat to hear rarely performed tracks such as “Take Me,” “Hide Your Heart” and a Stanley-sung “Hard Luck Woman,” among others.

The bad: Simmons botches the opening lines to “Christine Sixteen,” barking out “That’s not the words!” before getting back on track. Two songs later, the normally reliable Singer blows the ending of “Goin’ Blind.”

The ugly: After a tight performance of “Rock Bottom” (the intro of which Stanley and Thayer nail, to Stanley’s visible relief), the show veers off course with an ill-advised 10- minute Led Zeppelin tribute. It begins with the swampy blues of “You Shook Me” before seguing into a medley featuring segments of “Ramble On,” “Whole Lotta Love” and more. On one hand, a case could be made that it’s fun to see such a famously structured band relax and let its guard down, but truthfully, the segment feels like the end of a modern GNR set where all momentum is lost as a previously well-paced show devolves into self-indulgent jams. “Now we’re having fun,” Stanley says at one point between Zep licks. Good for the four of you, but what about the other 2500 people here tonight?

The non-musical surprises: Perhaps even more shocking than the non-appearance of Simmons’ tongue is that there’s absolutely no mention of next week’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

The non-musical non-surprises: There are, however, two shameless plugs between songs for the L.A. Kiss arena football team that Simmons and Stanley co-own. Members of the team are in attendance (with reality TV show camera crews in tow), while all attendees are given a free L.A. Kiss baseball hat on the way inside the venue. (San Manuel is one of the team’s sponsors, and tonight’s program says the concert “celebrates the kickoff of L.A. Kiss football.”)

The most ludicrous moment: Simmons speaks rarely throughout the evening, but before “Plaster Caster,” he suddenly decides to speak up and tells the audience an uncomfortable and ill-advised joke about Michael Jackson and second-graders.

The most awkward moment: Simmons comes through yet again. After the butler-did-it finale of “Rock And Roll All Nite” (the only time he stands all night), Simmons chucks his acoustic bass – on which he’d curiously written “I just need a will of my own and the balls to stand alone” – into the crowd, as a taken-aback Stanley shakes his head.

The this-song-shouldn’t-work-but-it-does moment: Despite the fact that it’s a staple of the band’s electric concerts, the inclusion of “Shout It Out Loud” in an unplugged setting is a surprise. Even more of a shock is how good it sounds acoustically. Give the band credit for steering clear of obvious, slower-paced choices like “Beth” and “Forever” in favor of high-energy crowd-pleasers that hold up well when gutted. (Honorable mention: “Cold Gin.”)

The final word: Although they undoubtedly deserve a wing of their own in the Big Dumb Rock pantheon, Kiss rarely gets due credit as composers, and tonight’s stripped-down performance serves as a reminder that under its larger-than-life, greasepaint-caked facade lies a capable songwriting core responsible for some of the hookiest hard rock of the past four decades. Granted, no material written in the last quarter-century is performed tonight, and the show’s format and timing is similarly backward-looking – but as the hottest band in the land improbably begins its fifth active decade with arguably the most visibility since the reunion tour, it’s once again clear that they should never be underestimated. Tonight, 2,500 fans leave the casino as winners.