It’s equal parts astounding and impressive that The Kills have been around for 15 years. For a band formed on the perilous dynamic of Alison Mosshart’s wildly frenetic, outsized vocalist and Jamie Hince’s ultra-cool, blues-indebted guitar work, one can envision a world where they burn out quickly over two or three impressive records then leave behind a beautiful corpse. Thankfully they’re smarter than that, and their longevity can be credited, at least in part, to their commitment to evolution while still maintaining the core tenets of their sound. No two Kills records sound the same, but you also wouldn’t think any of them were made by a different band.
The most recent Kills album, 2016’s Ash & Ice, saw them returning after a five year hiatus that was partly due to a finger injury that left Hince with chronic tendon problems. Thankfully, the band hasn’t lost a step – at least not when performing on stage. Last Saturday they returned to Chicago for the first time in almost two years for a special free show at House of Vans. It was part of a day-long event “Get on Board: A Celebration of Women’s Skateboarding” which featured an all-female open skate during the afternoon and the concert that night. Most importantly, it was about giving the spotlight to women and allowing them to fully express themselves through words, action, and art.
The Kills were certainly not short on expression during their hour-long set. They barrelled through 13 songs with all the heart and ferocity of a dog feasting on a steak dinner. It was an intense, exciting, and incredibly fun thing to watch, as just about anyone who’s ever seen the band live before can certainly attest. This was my third time seeing The Kills in concert, and the first time in close to a decade, so I was naturally intrigued to find out if much had changed with their live show. Outside of the set list, the official answer is “not much,” however that’s a good thing.
Both of the times I saw The Kills in the past weren’t particularly memorable. It was less that the performance was lacking, and more the environment left me struggling to connect with what they were doing. Music festivals just aren’t the best way to see some bands, and being trapped among a large sea of people with a distant view of what’s happening on stage means they need to work that much harder to win me over. With capacity limited to a few hundred people and mostly great sight lines, the intimacy of House of Vans Chicago really provided the right venue to fully absorb the immense intricacies of a Kills live performance.
Mosshart is an absolutely explosive presence on stage, and commits to a physicality that befits her aggressive lyrics and powerful voice. It’s the sort of attention-grabbing, superstar behavior that provides focus rather than taking it away from those more deserving. A song like “U.R.A Fever” gets elevated thanks to her enthusiasm, or “Black Balloon” seeps with dread because she sings it like there’s a weight pressing down on her chest. It was genuinely exciting to watch her belt out a cover of Saul Williams’ “List of Demands (Reparations)” and somehow make it fit in perfectly with everything else.
Hince dominates in his own way, but it’s less flashy and provides more of a backbone upon which everything else succeeds. He’ll jump in with a vocal part, buzzsaw guitar riff or solo for a minute, then recede back into the shadows to make sure the entire enterprise stays on course. It may be a slightly more thankless role, but it’s no less essential to the overall dynamic. “Tape Song” sounds better than ever because his precision and aggression, while the closing combo of “Pots and Pans” and “Monkey 23” felt like he was attempting to rip a hole in time and space. So yeah, chronic tendon problems be damned, the guy doesn’t sound any worse for wear.
Most critical to making The Kills work however is their dynamic. It always comes back to that dynamic. You can hear it on record, but seeing how Mosshart and Hince play off one another on stage provides layers that help make the songs more powerful in a live setting. You’ll spot a glance between them that tells you everything without saying a single word. Hince will step over and lay his chin on Mosshart’s shoulder and they’ll share a few moments of bliss during a song. There’s comfort in knowing they’re still that close after all this time as a band, and comfort in knowing they still know how to deliver a wildly engaging and entertaining performance to satisfy fans both old and new.
Hard Habit to Break
Doing It to Death
List of Demands (Reparations) [Saul Williams cover]
Steppin’ Razor [Joe Higgs cover]
Pots and Pans