The Kills' show last night at Manhattan's Terminal 5 was billed as a 10th anniversary concert, but the band hardly acknowledged the occasion over a 90-minute set focused mainly on material from their two most recent albums. There were a few surprises particular to this show: They were joined by four additional percussionists in matching black leather and red bandanas whose drumming was more ornamental than audible, and they revived the seldom-performed No Wow gem "At the Back of the Shell." But for the most part, this was business-as-usual for a band more invested in their present than their past.
The 10th anniversary conceit is helpful, though, in getting a grasp on just what the perennially underrated Kills have accomplished over the past decade. They're just coming out of an awkward phase of their career in which they were not quite established enough to have elder statesman gravitas, and a bit too experienced to seem buzzy and fresh to those who would prefer to jump on something new and cool. With this tour, the duo are clearly eager to reinvent themselves as rock & roll lifers, which, of course, they are. Frontwoman Alison Mosshart is only 33, but has been putting out records since she was a teenager, and guitarist Jamie Hince did time in a series of long-forgotten indie bands. They carry themselves like people who could never bring themselves to even consider giving up a life on the road.
When the Kills began a decade ago, raw, hedonistic rock was on a brief upswing in popularity, which was in many ways a response against the dour post-grunge radio rock of the late Nineties, and an increasingly twee and defanged indie music scene. At the time, the duo got lost in the glut of garage bands with names beginning with a definite article. These days, most of those other bands are either long gone or irrelevant, while the Kills' music has kept evolving. Hince started off with blues minimalism backed by simple drum machine beats, but he's become one of his generation's most distinctive guitarists, with a style that embraces scuzzy digital distortion.
Mosshart, for her part, has become a style icon for a small cult of young women who admire her effortless confidence and ability to project a self-possessed sexiness without showing much skin or making concessions to the dudes in the room. Her badass style is very big on leopard print, to the point that the band now performs in front of an enormous leopard-print backdrop. Her visual aesthetic carries over to her vocals and lyrics, which balance playful wit and emotional vulnerability with aloof coolness and an all-consuming obsession with passionate romance.
That fixation on romance is the key to the Kills' enduring appeal, and what sets them apart from so many of their peers. Mosshart and Hince specialize in conveying passion and desperation, and in building a world for themselves that measures up to the dramatic, exciting vision of rock that exists in their fantasies. In 10 years, they've done an amazing job of making this dream a reality for themselves, and offering their fans a version of rock glamor that is, once again, a refreshing alternative to most of their contemporaries.
The Kills' setlist at Terminal 5 was as follows:
"Future Starts Slow"
"Heart Is A Beating Drum"
"Last Day of Magic"
"Crazy" (Patsy Cline cover)
"At the Back of the Shell"
"You Don't Own the Road"
"Cheap and Cheerful"
"Pots and Pans"
"The Last Goodbye"
"Nail In My Coffin"
"Fuck the People"