Atlanta KISS Expo (with Vinnie Vincent, Robert Fleischman and Ron Keel) review

VINNIE VINCENT MADE ME CRY AND OTHER TALES FROM THE 2018 ATLANTA KISS EXPO

Date: January 20, 2018
Event: Atlanta KISS Expo
Venue: Atlanta Marriott Hotel & Conference Center
Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Reviewer: John Stoney Cannon
Photos: John Stoney Cannon

Like many KISS fans, I’ve been a card carrying member of the KISS Army since around America’s bicentennial year. Like my Dad used to say, “Born in ’66 with the spirit of ’76.” Not only have I carried that membership card around the world, in the ‘70s and early ’80s, I would also tote all my KISS vinyl records around in a shopping bag. I gotta say — that KISS Army membership card has come with more benefits than any credit card I’ve ever had in my wallet and for me it has presented me with the privilege of at one time or another of producing my own KISS Fanzine (the remotely obscure “Addressed to Kill”), writing to East German KISS fans before and after the Berlin Wall (if anyone knows Thomas Kluth, please tell him to hit a rocker up — it’s been way too long), and enjoying more KISS-related concerts and fan experiences than probably should be allowed.

But despite all of that (and the fact that over the years KISS fans have gathered for conventions and expos just a couple hours down the road), I have never been to any of the fab KISS conventions or expos in the southern United States. It hasn’t been for a lack of desire. In all honesty, as a musician, I buy into the music first and foremost. Although it’s cool that KISS fans have that closeness that’s fostered by opportunities to gather at everything from concerts to cruises, I kinda prefer my KISS experiences one-on-one whether it be making concert moments; listening to records over coffee; sharing stories through letters, calls, and dinner; whatever… Rock and roll is my first true love and that personal relationship drives me to want to share it as deeply as possible and I guess trying to share something that involves personal conversation is tough in a room filled with a few thousand other people trying to do the same. Well, it’s also tough to break free when your life revolves around not only the love of music but also writing about music, writing and performing music, producing music and music events including programs for television, radio, and online websites. My life has been blessed with such since the ’80s and a lot of thanks for that has to go to KISS. To this day, I still love KISS and KISS fans. So with the need for a break and with the rare ability after all these years to scratch something off a KISS bucket list, I was Christmas gifted not only with passes for the 2018 Atlanta KISS Expo, but also the opportunity to get away for three days of concerts, record shopping, and catching up with friends in the Atlanta area.

This particular KISS experience started off like most others, with KISS music. The Thursday before the Expo, while getting ready to head out, the morning was spent drinking coffee and spinning music including Lick It Up and Dressed To Kill, Keel’s The Final Frontier, and some Rolling Stones (all on vinyl) to gear up for the Stones tribute band we would be catching that night in Atlanta featuring not only the most dead-on Mick Jagger impersonator ever, but also my good, long-time friend (and fellow KISS fan) Fred McNeal from the Georgia Satellites. I think most music crazy people share that same experience of picking out the perfect music for a day involving a musical journey and the next few days would definitely be a rock and roll road trip featuring some great friends, food, shopping and live music.

But first on the list, a two-hour drive up I-20 to hook up with not only one of the coolest guitarists on the planet, but also a guy capable of showing Tommy Thayer a thing or two when it comes to playing Ace Frehley licks, and portraying Johnny Thunders in any tribute to the New York Dolls — Fred McNeal of the Street Fighting Band / Georgia Satellites. This catch up would lead to a pair of nights at Atlanta’s City Winery catching killer live performances from Stones tribute Street Fighting Band on Thursday and local singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins on Friday broken up with some record store finds including rocking releases in Fortnox’s debut and the first two Hotlanta Homecookin’ records — all early ’80s vinyl releases featuring great Atlanta hard rock from back in the day.

With our final day upon us, we packed up and headed to Spiller Coffee to get revved up for the long Saturday ahead kicking off with a caffeinated birthday toast to Paul Stanley whose name and image we were set to be bombarded by along with those of Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Eric Carr, and the star of the day Vinnie Vincent who was coming out of hiding after years spent as a rock and roll recluse. We knew the parking might be tricky, the lines kinda long, and the day cool, but we never could have expected the actual rollercoaster of a ride we were heading towards. Matter of fact, the parking and the event itself were a breeze. Once the long, slow moving line to get in was navigated, the rest was just a matter of keeping our emotions in check. But the cool part about lines at rock and roll expos and conventions has to be the cool people you meet and that is multiplied by ten when it comes to KISS fan events.

Yeah, any rock event has its share of cool band t-shirts but a KISS event also has fans in costumes, makeup, props, and those fans are made up of the widest demographic including guys and gals of all color, creed, and sexual orientation from one to a hundred. KISS fans are unique and not only share an extreme love for the band, but KISS fans are loud, outspoken, and have absolutely no problem being heard and seen. We not only had fun hanging out with fans dressed just like KISS, but fans from the cities of New York and Boston, as well as the countries of Canada and even Germany and Australia all drawn in by not only a maniacal love of KISS, but a burning desire to witness Vinnie Vincent coming out of hiding. Add in the occasional bump into personalities like radio / TV show host and metal fan Eddie Trunk and the rock and roll cowboy himself — Ron Keel — and you couldn’t help to have fun in line. Hell, even just people watching made standing in line more than tolerable!

After an hour and a half or so of slow moving line travel, we finally made out way into the large conference room that was host to the main section of the Atlanta KISS Expo and immediately immersed ourselves in the outer rim of displays that contained everything from the coolest replica KISS costumes and instruments to musicians, writers, artists, and vendors all somehow connected to the KISS universe. Big eyed and excited along with other fans, we traversed this magical KISS wonderland while in other rooms nearby fans dealt with the usual pros and cons of such a large event like not being able to pick up pre-paid merchandise (con) and getting one-on-one time with the reclusive Vinnie Vincent (pro). But for us in this wide open KISS land, time was spent drooling over common as well as hard to find killer merchandise and meeting great KISS related musicians like Bob Kulick, Robert Fleischman and Ron Keel, writers Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs, media personalities Eddie Trunk and the guys

Wicked

from 3 Sides Of The Coin, Destroyer / Love Gun cover artist Ken Kelly, one-time KISS bodyguard John Harte and more.

Some of the funniest conversations included talking 3 Sides of the Coin and Sleaze Roxx with Michael Brandvold, chatting up radio and extreme love for rock and roll with Ron Keel, going back and forth between Bob Kulick and Robert Fleischman, hearing the great guys in New York band Wicked gush over their love for Sleaze Roxx and early ’70s glitter and glam rock, and just hearing some of the greatest KISS love stories by fans from all over the world including a couple from near my home in Augusta, Georgia. If there was a difficult thing to deal with, it was only trying not to spend my life savings on buying the entire KISS farm. Even finding seats up front for the Q&A and performances was not difficult and we settled into a pair of great ones surrounded by some cool fans and took turns watching each other’s spots in order to accomplish everything from food / drink runs, bathroom breaks, and of course checking out vendor tables.

Authors Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs:

Taking the stage a little behind schedule, Eddie Trunk welcomed the Expo attendees and introduced Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs, the co-writers for the awesome book KISS Alive Forever. While it’s true that this 2002 book chronicling the band’s touring history is an awesome read filled with great information, and the newer 2018 edition with cool new cover and additional information is nice to look at, the information contained is now long-past common KISS fan knowledge. It was mildly neat to hear Gooch and Suhs talk about connecting and creating the original publication but aside from a couple of short tidbits and the rare video footage showed after the Q&A, this particular segment was short of anything new for the average KISS fanatic which possibly turned out to be a good thing for fans still waiting in line to get in as they didn’t miss much.

Former KISS bodyguard John Harte:

By contrast, the Q&A with former KISS bodyguard John Harte was not only filled with witty tales mostly involving Ace Frehley and the occasional photographer, this segment led by quest interviewer John Ostronomy of Talking Metal ended up being one of the highlights of the day. If fans needed a laugh, Harte and his recollections of the band on and off tour shed some fun and interesting insight into how the band were as people in the early days. In particular, a short story about finding one of Ace Frehley’s cars in a tree which of course is something you don’t see every day if ever.

Eddie Trunk:

Next up was radio host / metal mega-fan Eddie Trunk and right off the bat he offered a mic up for anyone to ask him anything about pretty much, well anything. So with the offer of a wide open range of topics to ask Eddie about, fans fired away questions about everything from Ace Frehley to pretty much just Ace Frehley. OK, in all fairness, Eddie did get to talk about Chris Jericho and a small bit about Peter Criss as well as merchandising but the main topic of discussion revolved around Ace Frehley. No surprise though as we were at a KISS Expo, and Eddie and Ace are buds but while it’s true that I am a KISS fan, they don’t call me the “Rock & Roll Junkie” for nothing. As the one guy not donning anything KISS related (I was wearing a Mötley Crüe / Scorpions t-shirt), I figured I’d be the perfect dude to ask the question all KISS fans wanna know the answer to — which album Eddie Trunk preferred between UFO’s No Place To Run and UFO’s The Wild, Willing, And The Innocent. Luckily for me, Eddie seemed genuinely pleased that someone appreciated him for something other than his relationship with Ace and I got a cool answer to a question about another rock band I love.

Ron Keel:

After a short break, Keel founder and frontman Ron Keel took the stage for a short set of acoustic guitar / looper tunes that not only showcased his still killer voice but his ability to play guitar as well. Kicking off with a cover of the Patti Smith / Bruce Springsteen track “Because The Night” and “Tears Of Fire” (both featured on Keel’s The Final Frontier album), the rocker and now radio show host shared a bit of the past and future including a Ron Keel Band song and a bit of KISS tunes by way of a medley of “A Million To One” and “Tears Are Falling” and ’70s classic “Hard Luck Woman.” While the performance was strong, it was perhaps what Keel announced under his breath that excited fans most — it appears that Rock Candy Records will be re-releasing updated versions of the self-titled Keel album and The Final Frontier in the near future but shhh… even after announcing it from the stage to a room full of Facebookers, I’m not sure he wants everyone to know yet. Ron still has it and his connection to the audience was pretty electric which I asked him about afterwards.

“Man it’s an amazing group of people,” said Ron, “These people share a common bond with rock and roll, KISS, and a lot of Keel-aholics in the house today so I just wanted to entertain them for a minute and have a good time and hopefully they enjoyed it as much as I did.” Not only did the Keel / Ron Keel Band frontman rock the house, he met and mingled with the fans all day. Truly someone who hasn’t forgotten what being a fan is like and before we finished talking, he even tossed heaping amounts of praise and thanks for the support Sleaze Roxx has sent his way.

Ron Keel’s setlist:
01. Because The Night
02. Tears of Fire
03. Wild Forever
04. A Million To One / Tears Are Falling
05. Hard Luck Woman

Ron Keel – Acoustic set at the Atlanta KISS Expo, 01/20/18

Ron Keel – Incredible acoustic set at the Atlanta KISS Expo featuring the return of Vinnie Vincent, January 20, 2018 00:00 – 03:50 Because The Night 05:05 – 09:10 Tears of Fire 14:20 – 19:30 When Love Goes Down 22:19 – 25:50 A Million To One (KISS) 26:19 – 30:24 Hard Luck Woman (KISS)

Robert Fleischman and Bob Kulick:

3 Sides Of The Coin co-host Michael Brandvold was tapped to interview former Journey / Vinnie Vincent Invasion singer Robert Fleischman next which based on the schedule looked to be a great lead up to Vinnie Vincent’s first general audience appearance in years but whether it was due to the meet and greets, or a desire to allow Vinnie more time to talk to KISS fans, the Bob Kulick segment was moved up. While this may have separated the segments involving the former Invasion bandmates, it made for an amazing back to back musical discussion from two of rock music’s more underrated artists. Fleischman discussed everything from helping write early Journey classics to his part in the creation of the first Vinnie Vincent Invasion album while Kulick waxed nostalgia about his ongoing relationship with Paul Stanley and KISS, performing live with his brother Bruce, his thoughts on Ace and more. Particularly most exciting for fans was the guitarist’s comments about performing again with Bruce on the next KISS Kruise and the possibility of the Kulick brothers hitting the road together. Both Fleischman and Kulick exhibited a sincere heart for rock and roll and while discussing working with Lemmy Kilmister, Kulick commented that the Motörhead frontman “never cared about the money, only ever cared about the music.” As a singer / songwriter completely head over heels in love with music, it was inspiring to hear both speak from the heart about the music.

Vinnie Vincent:

After this great tag team of Q&A sessions, Expo mainman Derek Christopher took the stage sharing a bit of banter with the crowd before trying three times to introduce the main attraction for the event — Vinnie Vincent. On Christopher’s prompting, the Expo audience erupted each time gearing up for what everyone in attendance was fired up for. Of course, for those who didn’t attend the meet and greets or anyone who managed to miss the video of the Eddie Trunk interview conducted the day before, there were obviously questions. What would Vinnie look like? What will Vinnie say? Chances are up to a few days earlier, the biggest question was probably if Vinnie would actually show up? Luckily for those in attendance, he did. And boy, how he did. For all the hoopla surrounding the former KISS guitarist’s first public appearance in years, it did not disappoint. Not even close.

Now I will admit that when we were considering attending the 2018 Atlanta KISS Expo, it was mainly out of the same curiosity as a lot of people. I too was curious what Vincent would look like and after all the rumours, I also wondered if come the day of the Expo, it would actually happen. For years, the world had heard nothing but strange things about Vinnie from everyone including members of former bands and the press, so it was kind of easy to buy into the whole “well if it wasn’t true, then EVERYONE wouldn’t be saying the same things about him” mentality. While Vinnie saying otherwise doesn’t necessarily make it true, the guy’s sense of vulnerability and sincerity came across as extremely believable. The Q&A session that I half-heartedly figured could end up being merely a cash in with very little return ended up easily being the highlight of the Expo.

If ever there was an example of emotional overload, Vinnie’s time on stage and direct eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart discussion with the fans was it. Seemingly, he held little back even at times near or at tears with the fans vocally lifting him up each time. If there was even a small positive to come out of the Expo, perhaps it was that despite all the issues in the world, people can bring together the things we all share in the battles of everyday life and support each other regardless of differences or opinions. At the 2018 Atlanta KISS Expo, Vinnie finally got to say his peace to the fans as well as own up to his faults which drew nothing but support from a fan base that realize that they themselves are filled with as many faults as the next person.

Within his sincerity, Vinnie stated that this “cleansing” was much needed for him and the process has gone a long way to maybe even saving his life. For KISS fans who for years stand by KISS despite the band not always being considered cool, this is just as much a cleansing. KISS fans want their heroes to be worthy of their fandom. For all the desire to hear crazy stories about Vinnie, deep down inside, KISS fans always wanted to hear only a truth that proved Vinnie to be the talented amazing guy that Paul Stanley always said he wasn’t. Perfect? Of course not but just another listen to the “new” tracks on Smashes, Trashes, And Hits is enough in itself to prove that Stanley is far from perfect himself and Gene Simmons? Well that’s a whole other story.

So the fans’ dream of the return of Vinnie Vincent came true but the story didn’t end there. Unbeknownst to organizer Derek Christopher, the once make-up wearing ankh guitarist requested an acoustic guitar. Vinnie performed a short set of songs solo including “A Million To One”, “That Time Of Year” and once emotionally shaken by the support of the audience, a raw rendition of “Back On The Streets” made even more emotional by the unexpected arrival on stage of his former bandmate Fleischman. This created a loud response from the audience and a final explosion of emotional overload bringing Vinnie’s time on stage to an end with a hug from Fleishman and the offer by Christopher to present a Vincent / Fleischman performance reunion at a future Nashville KISS Expo. The finale saw Vinnie shaking hands with fans before heading off for another round of meet and greets leaving the stunned audience with barely enough energy left to enjoy KISS tribute band Priss who were sadly left to follow up the impossible to follow.

On a day where everyone involved, from organizers to guests to fans left everything on the proverbial rock and roll field, I found Christopher sitting and catching his breath just outside the Expo doors and asked him about his feeling regarding the very emotionally end of Vinnie’s Q&A to which he replied: “It was amazing,” said Christopher. “ I mean it was so spontaneous. It was exciting and you can feel the chemistry and the love these guys have. Fleischman and Vinnie Vincent — I mean Vinnie said it earlier you know, there’s Page and Plant, Simmons and Stanley, and Fleischman and Vinnie Vincent. Man, they belong together. It’s going to be an amazing experience when these guys get upon stage together. “

Vinnie Vincent’s setlist:
01. Tears
02. A Million To One
03. That Time Of Year
04. Back On The Streets (with Robert Fleischman)

Vinnie Vincent playing live at Atlanta KISS Expo on January 20, 2018 including with Robert Fleischman:

Vinnie Vincent – COMPLETE PERFORMANCE Atlanta KISS Expo

First public performance in over 20 years!! WOW!! PLUS with Robert Fleischman!!!! Incredible!!!!