The Kills at the Empty Bottle
November 27, 2004, Chicago
When the Kills herked and sloe-eyed their way through the Magic Stick in April 2003, it seemed like the duo hated the audience at least as much as they wanted to fuck everyone in it. They flirted with jutting guitar necks and long, piking limbs, but would lick the end of a live wire before they’d look us in the eye. Songs like “Superstition” and “Fuck the People” were certainly hot in a this-bathroom-counter-supports-the-weight-of-two sort of way, but the duo’s bug eyes, flop sweat, and general fuming irritability kept ownership of the songs on their side of the stage monitors. For the audience, it was both sexy and frustrating.
A year and a half on from that show, and the Kills have continued to garner press for their stirring, spurning take on blues-inspired, Velvets-infused, and slightly mechanized slurry. They also found time to tour even more, and record a sophomore full-length (at Key Club Recording in Benton Harbor, MI, natch!). The No Wow material did the heavy lifting during Hotel and VV’s performance this past Saturday night at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. And though they still rely on that cagey come-on presence (Hotel might’ve even been wearing the same tight-fitting tunic), the Kills have stripped out much of their hate in favor of unblinking, moralist-baiting sex shop rock. You want some?
Saturday began with VV stalking the Bottle’s tiny triangular stage, frantic with energy as Hotel made adjustments to his Fender. A quick lean to his right and a flick of the finger switched on the usual pre-recorded drum track (anyone hoping the band had added a rhythm section should kick their own shins in a clueless stupor), but instead of the grimy, howling spackle that typified Keep on Your Mean Side‘s percussion, out came a twittering, three-part blip. Harsh, but definitely derived from disco. Adding in his trademark peels of flat-ass distortion, Hotel set up a new song that featured VV’s vocals in the first part and his own in the second. Eventually their vocals joined together, she hanging lithely from the PA wedge like the X-rated shadow of a runway model, he strutting in place and throwing jagged bolts from the six-string. Two minutes in, and it was clear the Kills weren’t scared any longer. They were expanding their powerful dualism – not to more band members, but to the paying customers, and in particular the couples. They got the message, too. Types began bursting into fits of writhing combustion as the Kills continued with material both new and old. Reaching hands shot upward from the crowd of bobbing heads, strangers bought shots for one another in the back, and couples of all makes and genders found the Bottle’s dark corners for lip service and a little thanksgiving for the tingling, stunning power of live rock and roll.
That modified disco sense of the first song’s percussion continued through the night. The Kills weren’t reinterpreting Giorgio Moroder’s keening sashay for “Love to Love You Baby.” But the ghosts of Donna Summer’s trills and sultry intakes drifted like cigarette clouds through the bristling, cutting guitar lines and urgent, almost chanted vocals of both VV and Hotel. There was still danger in the music – songs unfolded slowly, like a wary walk into an ill-lit peep show lair. But from Hotel’s occasional “Thank you”s, to his constant, fatherly monitoring of VV’s more primal antics (Tina Turner-style microphone fluffs, ecstatic yelps and elastic stretches, long surveys of the crowd’s reaction), there was a definite softening of the Kills’ insular edges, an allowance of the good-times-roll kind of hotness to match their always exciting gutter love hearts.
Hotel and VV summed up the night with a final, crazed quickie. With his guitar pumping out peels of distortion, Hotel crept toward a prostrate VV, who’d ended in that position after an erotic deep knee bend that was the stuff of gymnasts’ wet dreams. He jerked the neck upward as his guitar continued screaming, and with each flail of wood and hand VV’s frame rose a little bit more. It was an exorcism, it was hypnotic; it was high camp, but hot as hell, and a thousand times dirtier than the hand-wringers would like. It was also the end of a too-brief set. But the Kills had put love and pain in relief for a 110% of it, and probably played matchmaker for a few people in the audience. The line for the Empty Bottle’s photo booth got longer as goers documented new friends and old, and the couples that’d been kissing in the corners lifted dazed smiles to the harsh house lights. And they were refreshed.
Let’s all give thanks for guitars and sweaty dedication.