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Dead Ringers 

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STRUTTER

DOME ROOM, APRIL 7

Since Kiss abandoned the roar of the greasepaint years ago (revealing four ordinary, weathered mugs), the torch of rock 'n' roll hypertheatricality has sputtered sadly; rock is well into the Flannel Era, and the climate has turned cool. No one wants to dress up in fancy costumes, set off explosions, and play dumb, thunderous heavy metal anymore. Except for Strutter. Strutter is a Kiss tribute band, part of a fairly recent development in bar-band land. Tribute bands present slavish re-creations of famous acts, usually 70s hard-rock megabands like Journey or Led Zeppelin or ZZ Top, for consumption by drunk bar hoppers--a group whose taste in entertainment is by definition often less than discriminating. The musicians who form these bands have spent years mastering their instruments only to make a career out of impersonation, implicitly acknowledging that they don't have anything to say musically. They're about as thoroughly artistically bankrupt as you can get.

Sure you've got Elvis impersonators, but to do him all you need is one reasonable facsimile. With a whole band it gets trickier. Maybe you've got a great Bon Scott, but what are the chances of finding a Malcolm Young and an Angus Young who can both quit their day jobs?

With tribute bands you can't help cataloging the ways in which the guys onstage don't look like the stars they're aping: "That guy's too skinny to be Ozzy," you might say, or "I don't think Jimmy Page had a mustache."

But not Strutter. Strutter has chosen the perfect band to imitate. It doesn't matter what the individual band members really look like, because if the greasy black-and-white makeup's right, from bassist Gene Simmons's evil clown to drummer Peter Criss's cat whiskers, they'll always be dead ringers. The cumbersome costumes are probably a pain to keep in one piece on the road, but that part is essential: without Simmons's giant studded codpiece and towering platform heels, without Ace Frehley's Johnny Socko space suit, and without Paul Stanley's spandex clinging to every bulge, the show can't go on. But Strutter pull it off. They look exactly like Kiss.

They also act exactly like Kiss, which mainly means the Gene Simmons character grimacing and flapping his bat wings and spewing blood and fire, but they all have a firm grasp of their subject's moves and manners. And Strutter sounds exactly like Kiss. Strutter is loud. Strutter has cannons and flash pots and concussion mortars. And Strutter has a backdrop that says in bright white flashing lights, STRUTTER.

Kiss's music is perfect for copying too--just ask any first-year guitarist who can already play half their songs, including the solos. But plodding riffs and strained, tuneless singing aside, Kiss was one of the best things about being young and stupid in the 70s. There was something both indescribably funny and vaguely threatening about the whole thing; stupid young boys knew that they were really just four guys wearing makeup, but also that they were getting laid and taking drugs and making tons of money. They breathed fire and blew things up in front of thousands of screaming teenage girls. Kiss were living the ultimate boy teen fantasy of volume and power and sex, and always behind a mask. A really cool mask.

Strutter's Sunday punch is cramming the whole Kiss experience into a club-sized package. At the huge arenas Kiss played, maybe a few people in the front row got a little Gene Simmons blood on them, but the vast majority were watching from a quarter mile back. At a club, everyone's in the orchestra pit. You can feel the heat when Simmons breathes fire. Little droplets of kerosene land in your beer. At the Dome Room recently, beginning with Kiss's traditional opener, "Detroit Rock City," Strutter ran down and executed every Kiss hit (with the unfortunate exception of the catchy "Hard Luck Woman"). The crowd, a collection of thirtysomething suiters, stoned heavy-metal boys and girls, grody bikers and biker chicks, and slumming hipsters, were content to put aside their life-style differences and high-five each other and scream out requests all night long.

The ultimate Kiss hit was one sung by Simmons, "Calling Dr. Love," an ode to sexual healing. Strutter's Simmons hunched over the microphone mimicking the original's aggressive growl: "Answer please, get on your knees / There are no bills, there are no fees." He strutted about the stage, his thigh-high boots perched atop the requisite eight-inch stacks. One beleaguered heel showed signs of a duct-tape repair job, but other than that and a few loosening seams and some pilling polyester, wardrobe seemed to be doing its job.

The real Gene Simmons had a ridiculously long and lively tongue, the result, every teenager knew, of a do-it-yourself operation with a pair of rusty scissors. Strutter's Simmons apparently cares enough about his job to have undergone the same scarifying procedure. Strutter's Ace Frehley sashayed around the stage, doing a sort of antigravity Keith Richards stagger in giant silver boots. His spaceman duds had all the proper aluminum tubing. The guy playing Paul Stanley, the closest thing Kiss had to a heartthrob, was the closest thing Strutter had to a singer. Perhaps the show's finest moment was his creepily perfect introduction to "Cold Gin," lifted verbatim from Kiss Alive II. The height of boneheaded rawkbabble, delivered in a hectoring shriek with a weird, unidentifiable accent, it's a five-minute discourse on the relative merits of tequila, wine, and screwdrivers. While Simmons took the opportunity to wash the kerosene out of his mouth, Stanley delivered his lines like a berserk Disney World robot.

There were, admittedly, a few low points. Two-thirds of the way through (the point in a rock show when stuff like this always happens), the Ace Frehley character launched into what seemed like a 20-minute guitar solo. His ax lit up feebly; wisps of smoke curled out of the pickup. By Strutter standards, it was pathetic. Soon after came the Peter Criss character's awful karaoke grunt-through of Kiss's famous ballad "Beth." During this lull at least one fan began to have doubts: "Aw, he's too fat to be Criss." But then a few ear-splitting cannon blasts shook the room, and Strutter wound things up with a thundering version of "Rock and Roll All Nite."

They left the stage, the fog cleared, and Strutter, the only tribute band that matters, went backstage to wipe off their makeup and become four, ordinary, weathered mugs.

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