The Starchild, aka Paul Stanley, is seductively stroking the neck of his silver glitter guitar, an appreciative gesture meant to warm the cockles of a 20-something blonde who is baring more than just her heart. From her elevated perch atop someone’s weary shoulders, the blonde pulls down her sleeveless T-shirt for about the 12th time—a topless treat that, earlier, prompted Stanley to quip, “I love you … I want to marry you. For the night.”

Off to Stanley’s right, Gene Simmons as The Demon—a gooey trail of fake blood, sweat and spittle streaming off his chin—is flicking his legendary snake tongue into the cheek of guitarist Tommy Thayer. Behind them, flash pods explode and flame-throwing devices shoot across the stage with such intensity that audience members can feel the heat from 30 rows away. Few in the crowd seem to know the words to the song being played and, honestly, it doesn’t matter.

Welcome to an evening with KISS, which stormed into West Palm Beach Tuesday night with its Army in full force, as part of a rock-tastic double bill with Def Leppard. More than 15,000 people—countless sporting KISS makeup and several (ranging in age from small children to overweight, middle-aged men) in full-blown KISS costumes—filled Cruzan Amphitheatre to the gills.

Over the years, KISS has been an easy target for rock snobs for any number of reasons, past and present: Because Simmons has a reality show; because the band’s style-over-substance act doesn’t belong in the same Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as The Beatles and Springsteen; because the capitalists in KISS would sell their soul if it put another $14.99 in the war chest. While it’s true that fans can purchase everything from a KISS latex mask with full Gene tongue ($39.95) to a KISS Mr. Potato Head set ($34.95) at kissonline.com, it’s also true that KISS—celebrating 40 years (only Simmons and Stanley remain from the original band)—has earned its place in rock history.

Fans of the band, as loyal and feverish as any in the business, would certainly tell those critics to KISS off. After all, how many groups in this concert age enter on a descending eight-legged metal spider contraption that looks like something out of “War of the Worlds?” Where else can you witness a bass player hoisting a flaming sword and spewing fire, as Simmons did during “Hotter Than Hell?” When’s the last time you saw Dave Matthews ride a glorified zip line across the lower section of the crowd to an elevated platform in the middle of the amphitheater, as Stanley did before “Love Gun.”

KISS gave the Cruzan crowd exactly what it wanted, accompanied by massive pyrotechnics, billowing smoke, exploding confetti cannons and Simmons’ requisite blood gurgling prior to “God of Thunder.” The show ran so close to curfew that KISS couldn’t encore after closing with “Detroit Rock City” and “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

Def Leppard took the stage first, but theirs was a headlining show by any standard, a 14-song set of greatest hits that served as a reminder why the British band has sold some 100 million albums worldwide.

It’s also one of those rare groups that has remained relatively intact for the duration of its multi-decade run—with Joe Elliott (vocals), Phil Collen (guitar), Rick Savage (bass) and Rick Allen (drums) all logging 30 years or more with Def Leppard. Even more impressive is that they look and sound no worse for wear. Collen, a few years shy of 60, is ripped like an MMA fighter; Elliott, with his Union Jack scarf around the microphone stand, commanded the stage like someone half his age; and Allen, the group’s legendary one-armed drummer, plays with as much enthusiasm as ever.

On this night, Def Leppard stayed true to its recordings—no lengthy solos or extended versions. Highlights included an acoustic take on “Bringin’ on the Heartache,” and a three-song closing stretch of “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph” that sounded like a band at the top of its game.

By the end of the night, with face paint fading fast, the KISS Army, along with everyone else, was spent. KISS and Def Leppard had done their jobs, and rock had won the day.  

Photos: Jason Koerner Photography (KISS) and Michele Eve Photography (Def Leppard).

Set List: Def Leppard

Let It Go
Animal
Foolin'
Love Bites
Let's Get Rocked
Two Steps Behind
Bringin' on the Heartbreak
Switch 625
Hysteria
Rocket
Armageddon It
Pour Some Sugar on Me
Rock of Ages
Photograph

Set List: KISS

Psycho Circus
Deuce
Shout It Out Loud
War Machine
Hotter Than Hell
I Love It Loud
Lick It Up
God of Thunder
Hide Your Heart 

Cold Gin 

Love Gun
Black Diamond 

Detroit Rock City 

Rock and Roll All Nite