Sunday night’s show at the Wonder was a good example of a new, still finding their legs band who could learn a thing or two from the more established, if overlooked, headliner.

What little I’d read about London band The Horrors suggested they were a garage band. And I suppose they are, but their garage is all black, lit with candles and contains every Cure record. They are young and just getting started, so they deserve a little slack, but their influences were painfully obvious and one wonders if we need another skinny-British-lads-guitar band. With their swirling, swoony guitars, they managed to sound like virtually every dark, romantically moody British band from Joy Division to My Bloody Valentine. They were watchable, but are a band in search of a sound and suffering from a little bit of an identity crisis. Hopefully they were watching from the wings when the Kills performed.

It’s rare to see a show where the headlining band has less equipment than the opening act, but such simplicity has always been a key part of the Kills aesthetic. And there’s something almost pure about this, at least as pure as a band who wrote a song called “Fuck the People” can be. They are still a duo (Jamie “Hotel” Hince & Alison “VV” Mosshart) and are still performing dark, gritty lo-fi blues-punk with no drummer. Live, they keep it stripped down with just guitars, backing tracks and vocals. When they emerged in the early part of the decade, they were dogged by comparisons to PJ Harvey, Royal Trux and the White Stripes (mostly because they were a male-female duo). But with Harvey coming off an erratic decade and Trux’s Jennifer Herrema indulging her Sunset Strip metal goddess fantasies, singer Mosshart is kind of the last dark woman standing.

Though there isn’t the same intimate, confrontational energy (and constant smoking) of their ’03 shows-ones in which it really did seem like they could, in the words of one of their songs, fuck or fight-they remain a tight, edgy, compelling live act. The Kills are a welcome tonic to bland “alternative” radio because they are committed to keeping rock ‘n’ roll grimy, sexy, and menacing. Their first album was titled Keep on Your Mean Side, which was a recommendation. Mosshart has a strong, slightly dangerous stage presence and, like the White Stripes, the duo format gives them an interplay and energy that other bands are often missing. Drawing from their most recent album, 2008’s Midnight Boom, they played the driving “U.R.A. Fever,” whose refrain “You ain’t born typical” could be their credo, the Velvet-y, danceable “Hook and Line,” and, for a change of pace, the quieter, more melodic “Black Balloon.”

There’s nothing particularly new about the Kills and their influences are clear, but, unlike the Horrors, they pull it off with style and vitality. The cheap, pungent foot stomping rhythms, ragged art-damaged blues riffs, and Mosshart’s sultry, barbed wire kisses vocals hit you right in the guts, even up in the balcony. Yet they’re not one-dimensional and they pulled off some unexpected covers, including a surprisingly straightforward version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s immortal “I Put a Spell on You” and, for their final song, avant-garde legend Captain Beefheart’s “Dropout Boogie,” which ended in some guitar molestation. Mosshart and Hince clasped hands and raised them, which came off less as a rock ‘n’ roll cliché and more as defiant solidarity.

Mosshart is currently fronting Jack White’s new band the Dead Weather, so who knows when we’ll hear from the Kills again. This show was a reminder that they are one of the decade’s most underrated bands and one of its best live bands. Keep it mean.

[Photos: Stinker]

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