Tough times in the concert industry as a whole don’t seem to apply to the yearly Top 40 bacchanal that is Kissmas Bash.
Presented by Western New York’s Kiss 98.5 FM, the yearly multi-act shows are a throwback to the variety tours of the 1950s and early ’60s, when multiple hit acts offered 20 minute sets to adoring – and more often than not, giddily screaming – masses.
The downside of these sorts of shows is the fact that you barely get to know an act before they’re whisked off stage to make room for the next one. The upside? Ask the reportedly 18,000 strong crowd that filled First Niagara Center on Monday night.
For a reasonable price, pop-savvy fans – and, let’s face it, an awful lot of their parents – were treated to a fast-paced show, with Kiss 98.5 DJs ably filling the down time between sets with witty banter and well-received crowd participation bits.
Things got under way promptly at 6 p.m., with a set from “American Idol” Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips. Phillips’ debut effort, “The World From This Side of the moon,” debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts upon its release earlier this year, which meant that the arena was most of the way filled even at the early hour the man took the stage.
Phillips did so flanked by an acoustic guitarist, a percussionist and a cellist for what would prove to be one of the more dynamic, subtle and musical mini-sets of the evening. Like a more middle-of-the-road version of Dave Matthews, Phillips had them swooning with sensitive acoustic ballads that showcased his strong, soulful singing.
Next up came the first of the evening’s social media-based superstars-in-waiting. By evening’s end, we were treated to a rapturously received set from a 16-year-old who stole a bit of the spotlight by covering the likes of Justin Bieber and Adele on YouTube. But first, we heard from fraternal twins Megan and Liz, who also took straight to the social media “airwaves” with their harmonized, laid-back takes on tunes already proven hit-worthy by the likes of Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift. This certainly seems like cheating on some level, but then, what band didn’t hone its chops by covering other people’s songs at the get-go?
Megan and Liz were pleasant enough, although they played to backing tracks, sans corporeal musicians, and their own songs – “Sunset Somewhere,” “Happy Never After” and “Bad For Me” – sounded like Taylor Swift-lite. Which is akin to filling half of your Lite beer of choice with tap water. The sisters harmonized nicely, though, and the crowd made their Buffalo debut a warm one.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Adam Young is the man behind the curtain with dance-pop hit machine Owl City. Young writes, performs, records and produces Owl City’s recordings on his own, but he grabs a few warm bodies to deliver the goods when he takes to the road. Joined by keyboardist Breanne Duren, guitarists Daniel Jorgensen and Jasper Neplen, and drummer Steve Goold, Young delivered a frenzied set of electro-pop that was ebulliently received.
Owl City cranked out the hits, breaking it all down for sing-alongs during “Fireflies” and “Good Time” – a radio hit in its recorded form as a duet with Carly Rae Jepsen – and did its best to conjure a sense of sweaty arena spectacle for its 20-minute set. The crowd loved it, but from a musical standpoint, the glaring musical clichés and the, ahem, liberal use of the oft-abused Auto Tune effect on the vocals robbed the music of what might have been something resembling warmth.
Sixteen-year-old Austin Mahone was up next, and his set marked the most surreal of the evening. Mahone “made it” by covering Bieber, and his show felt like a fully scripted reenactment of the slightly older pop it-boy’s gig. From the moment he took the stage, Mahone appeared to be lip-synching, and rather badly, at that. He did grab an acoustic guitar and play/sing “11:11” in real-time. But both “Say Somethin’” and “Just A Friend” appeared to be “phoned in.” And then he was gone, amid a cacophonous collective female shriek, after a mere 15 minutes on stage.
British singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ed Sheeran arrived in the midst of all of this as a bit of an anomaly. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a digital looping pedal, Sheeran sampled his own playing in real-time, crafting repetitive backing tracks, atop which he melded soul, folk and even a bit of rap. Like the others on the bill, Sheeran’s set was a short one, but unlike them, he avoided rushing through a string of his hits, instead busting into a 10-plus-minute version of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” replete with Pete Townshend-esque acoustic guitar meltdown, and a jam based on a self-sampled lick from Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla,” which no one in the crowd seemed to recognize.
Sheeran stood out as a maverick on this bill, a young musician willing to push the envelope.
Led by vocalist/guitarist Martin Johnson, Massachusetts pop-rock quartet Boys Like Girls turned in an inspired set of Maroon 5-esque anthems.
Johnson stopped the band after a single verse of “Love Drunk” and addressed the audience in what was one of the cooler bits of stage banter throughout the evening.
“Please, for 3½ minutes, can you watch us play this song without taking pictures or recording on your cellphones? There’s probably, like, 50,000 versions of us doing this song in the exact same way we’re going to do it for you right now, all over YouTube. Can we do this old-school, without cellphones, with you right here in the moment with us?”
The place went nuts and, perhaps surprisingly, obliged. For their efforts, Boys Like Girls rewarded them with a singalong version of the coda bit from the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Another holiday season, another packed house for Kissmas Bash.