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A lot of tribute bands have big shoes to fill.
The members of KISS tribute band ALIVE! have six-inch heeled, thigh-high, rhinestone-studded, silver, dragon-fanged boots to fill.
On stage, the quartet dresses like the flamboyant heavy metal pioneers, faithfully replicates the KISS sound and stage show ― complete with fire-breathing! ― and is attracting their own loyal legion of fans, just like their idols' famed “KISS Army.”
The band, which formed in April, played its first show in July ― a well-received concert on Independence Day in Galax's Felts Park ― and is preparing for a return performance Oct. 1 at Galax High School.
ALIVE! takes its name from the classic KISS album from the early 1970s, and members say they work hard to recreate the sound of the band's live music from that era.
Each member dresses as and wears the signature makeup of the founding KISS members. The band consists of Scott Leftwich of Galax as Ace Frehley; Bill Bowers of Galax as Peter Criss; Alec Paul of Greensboro, N.C., as Paul Stanley; and Jim Lewis of Roanoke as Gene Simmons.
All had been members of other KISS-related projects in the past, but earlier this year joined forces when those other bands fell apart.
“None of us had ever found the right mix of people before,” Leftwich says, walking downstairs to the band's rehearsal space in his basement.
“It takes someone with a special drive,” says Bowers. “And we've found a great group of musicians.”
The garage rehearsal area replicates their stage set-up, including a huge light-up KISS sign that serves as a backdrop.
In the corner, poking out of a box of equipment, is one of the silver boots Leftwich wears as “Space Ace” Frehley.
“Those aren't as bad as the ones Gene and Paul have to wear,” he says with a laugh. “Theirs have eight-inch heels.”
Bowers, the drummer, smiles. “I'm lucky. You can't drum in heels.”
Lefwich and Bowers have been friends for years and played together in various rock bands in the early 1990s. They were always KISS fans, and played their music in those bands.
Bowers is a self-professed KISS junkie. “I've lived and breathed it since I was 12 years old.”
Leftwich remembers being “obsessed” with the band since he was in second grade. “Everybody was obsessed with their look, the makeup and the outfits, but nobody knew what they sounded like.”
He asked his dad to buy him a KISS album. “I still can't imagine him buying that,” he says with a laugh. “He came home with Gene Simmons' first solo album.”
Bowers said Woodlawn School band director Jerry Liles was a big influence on his musical career. “He taught me to drum. He taught me the fundamentals, but let me find my own style.”
When he and Leftwich formed the first incarnation of their KISS tribute band, they wore hand-made costumes, with Bowers' mom making his.
(He says his mother, Judy DeBolt, is the band's biggest fan. “She has always supported everything I've done.”)
After that first KISS band broke up, he and Leftwich decided to carry on and began looking for a new “Gene” and “Paul.”
They wanted the best musicians, and Bowers says the found the best.
Leftwich found Alec Paul playing Paul Stanley in a North Carolina-based KISS group.
“I just cold-called him, and I found out they were on the verge of breaking up. We invited him to jam, and we just clicked”
Paul started playing the accordion at age six and then studied classical guitar and 16th Century lute pieces at age 13.
“Then I feel in love with rock music watching KISS on video tape at my bass player's apartment and knew my destiny was to play rock and roll,” he says.
Given his name and his likeness to his KISS counterpart, it did seem inevitable. “I was always mistaken for Paul Stanley when I was in my 20s.”
The Armenian immigrant came to the U.S. to study music in college. He performed original music with various bands, and got his first shot at making KISS-tory as a member of the tribute band “Destroyer” in Houston in 2008.
“The experience was OK, but the members were fighting,” Paul said. “So, I decided to move and join another working band in the North Carolina area until I found Scott over Facebook.”
The next challenge was finding a personality big enough to inhabit the larger-than-life persona of KISS frontman Gene Simmons. Leftwich said they finally put an ad on Craigslist.com.
“This guy called, and he was the first one that auditioned ― and he flat nailed it,” Leftwich said. That was seasoned musical veteran Jim Lewis, who had worked as “Gene” before.
Lewis said he's been a musician for many years. “My first gig was a Christmas show for my fifth grade elementary school orchestra.”
Lewis says the KISS show is a lot of work, “with the hardest part just trying to keep from falling off the shoes.”
“He's a very theatrical performer; a perfect Gene,” Leftwich says of Lewis, who was game to try out one of Simmons' trademarks ― breathing fire.
“We actually Googled 'How to breathe fire' and found different methods,” Leftwich says. “We found a method that worked, and Jim got it perfect the first time.”
“A guy in the circus actually put the instructions online,” Bowers recalls.
As Gene, Lewis is also required to spit blood. “It's just theatrical blood,” Bowers notes. “It's actually mint-flavored, if you can believe it.”
The lifestyle of a KISS tribute band may be rockin' and rollin' all night, but it's far from partying every day.
All the ALIVE members have families and day jobs ― Leftwich and Paul are in the information technology business, Bowers works in both the automotive and mental health fields and Lewis is a real estate appraiser.
Their shows sound wild, but backstage they are very serious and professional about their work.
“We knew we had found the right group of musicians with Alec and Jim because, like us, they come in, get dressed and go right to playing music,” Bowers says. “A lot of bands want to party and have other outside distractions, but none of us drink or do drugs. We're all about the music.”
It takes a lot of work to keep the KISS experience authentic for fans. “It was a matter of getting the right costumes, makeup and hair, and perfecting the moves and the theatrics of it all,” Leftwich says. “We have the props and do all the things a traditional KISS show would have.”
“We try to be so authentic, to the minor details,” Paul says. “We practice weekly together in front of a full-size mirror. I know it sounds vain, but that's what it takes” to make sure they get the look and moves right.
To get into his tight-fitting costume, Paul says he has to stay fit. He eats healthy and does P90X workouts. “I have some chocolate cake once in a while.”
Lewis said the KISS music, while not difficult to play, “needs to not only be played correctly, but also sound somewhat like it's supposed to.”
Bowers said ALIVE! bases its sound on KISS's live performances circa 1975, not on the recorded versions.
“On top of that, doing all the choreography while elevated [on heels] makes it a physical challenge,” Lewis says. “It's a lot of fun, though.”
Paul says the band's stage is even authentic, down to the cabinets and the sound of the Marshall amps.
He takes special pride in the custom work on Stanley's “Starchild” costume, with rhinestones and stars. “My guitars are hand-made with cracked mirror and rhinestones. These are my weapons that turn every mind to mush that encounters their presence.”
Leftwich says applying KISS's makeup is one of the biggest challenges. “We can get into costume in five minutes, but it takes two hours each for us to put on the makeup” ― Ace's silver-and-black design, Paul's star, Peter's cat face and Gene's bat wings.
Bowers said ALIVE! plays all the hits you'd expect ― “Rock N Roll All Night,” “Detroit Rock City,” etc. ― plus rare and obscure songs that diehard KISS fans love to hear live.
“We know about 20 songs now, and we're always working to add more to the show,” he says.
Leftwich says the July 4 show in Galax generated some good buzz. He appreciates promoter Jerry Hash and the Galax Volunteer Fire Department for working together to include a rock show as part of the GVFD's annual July 4 carnival and events in the park.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the [July 4] show. We didn't know what to expect. It was our first show and kind of a test.”
They spent two hours backstage after the show signing autographs and taking photos with fans. That's something they learned from their idols. They've met various members of KISS over the years, and both Leftwich and Bowers were impressed with how nice they were to fans.
Bowers has met Ace Frehley and two of KISS's more recent members, Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer.
Leftwich has met Paul Stanley and has actually performed on stage with Ace Frehley.
He also fronts the indie rock band Scott Leftwich & The Atarians, which has released several EPs, had its music featured in a couple of films, toured nationally on its own and has opened for Journey and Def Leppard.
The Atarians' gig at the famous Whiskey A-Go-Go club in Los Angeles fell through, but Leftwich ended up going there later and ended up on stage with the very rock star he portrays.
Show offers started coming in after the July 4 show. This past weekend, ALIVE! played The Last Resort, a club in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The band only got to play for an hour on July 4, but the show at GHS will be a full set. At the Oct. 1 concert, ALIVE! will be doing a photo shoot and filming a promotional video that will help them get more gigs.
Leftwich hopes ALIVE! can reach a deal with a production company that would handle booking. Bowers said there's talk of an ALIVE! show at the KISS Coffee House in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
At the July 4 show, ALIVE! performed with a slate of other local and regional rock bands that night, and Bowers hopes that the local rock scene will get more exposure through shows like that. “We love all kinds of music. I love bluegrass, too, but it's nice to mix it up a little.”
He's encouraged by the number of up-and-coming bands in the Galax area and all the young people getting into music ― any kind of music ― and using it as a positive influence in their lives.
“When I was young, music was my outlet. It was my focus,” Bowers says. “I used music to deal with life. I loved it and I still do.”
• For more information, visit ALIVE! on Facebook.