Julia Michaels and Kesha give standout performances at Kissmas Bash

The stars aligned at KISS 98.5’s annual holiday concert Saturday night


Pop music is for all ages.

Parents, children and even solo attendees took to KeyBank Center Saturday night to see some of pop’s rising stars at KISS 98.5's annual pop gathering, Kissmas Bash. 

With a lineup including Kesha and other masters of stage presence, the artist who stood out the most is most comfortable with a pen in hand.

During her mere five song set, 60th Grammy Awards nominee Julia Michaels put on a Grammy-caliber performance.

The songwriter extraordinaire performed her own solo hits as well as a stripped-down medley of popular tracks that she wrote. “Good for You” and “Sorry” got the crowd going, as she sang along with former-Bieber guitarist Dan Kanter.

Her opener song “Pink,” may not have been appropriate for the crowd of mainly kids and teenagers, but she made it work with her free-spirit and exuberance. It was still a solid warm up for the tears and excitement she’d inspire later in the set.

Michaels’ closing track, “Issues” brought down the house with infectious energy and stunning vocals. The writer-turned-performer created the perfect paradox in the crowd as she got the fans dancing while simultaneously delivering the ballad of the year. The audience was all for it, too. Parents, kids and solo concert-goers sang along before waving goodbye to Michaels.

Luckily for fans, Michaels wasn’t the only pop sensation of the night.

Comeback queen Kesha gave the entertaining evening a dazzling send-off. Old hits like “Blow” and “We R Who We R” were given updated arrangements and punctuated with Kesha’s powerful, raspy alto.

Following the release of her 2012 album Warrior, Kesha faced tremendous personal hardships, including a stay in an eating disorder treatment center and a highly publicized legal battle against her former producer, Dr. Luke.

And her long-awaited return to the stage was nothing short of triumphant.

“Kesha is amazing all around,” Makenna Knoll of Buffalo said. “She brings so much energy to the stage.”

“Learn to Let Go,” a cut from Kesha’s critically-acclaimed new album, “Rainbow,” is a testament to the newfound joy in her life after facing massive personal obstacles. Her confidence and happiness radiated as she sang the track, and even the most skeptical parents in the audience were bouncing from side to side and smiling by the end.

But smash hit “Praying” was by far the highlight of Kesha’s set. Clad in a white gown and lit by a single spotlight, she looked simply angelic, and the performance that followed was nothing short of a religious experience. With soaring vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics, Kesha’s outstanding performance had kids and parents alike in tears.

But most of the young girls in the decent-sized crowd were there to see the hottest boy band of 2017, Why Don’t We.

When the group appeared on stage, screams could be heard from every direction. It was as if Bieber Fever and One Direction Infection made their comebacks. But Why Don’t We lacked in what both Bieber and 1D had in their fangirl-creating prime –– vocal ability.

Sitting through Why Don’t We reminded the parents in the crowd why they came; not for themselves, but to see the joy on their child’s face. KISS’ DJ Anthony made sure to shoutout every parent in the crowd, and rightfully so.

Why Don’t We wasn’t the night’s highlight by any means, but the real highlight of their set was their stage designer. Bright lights and appealing visuals kept non-fans’ attention on the group, despite their lackluster performance.

Fortunately, for parents who were hoping for a New Kids on the Block kick, another boy band kept them entertained.

With tight harmonies and killer choreography, up-and-coming boy band, Pretty Much delivered pop excellency.

The contrast between Saturday’s two boy bands couldn’t have been clearer.

Pretty Much shined in every category: vocal ability, choreography, likability –– and it doesn’t hurt that the fivesome has the Simon Cowell seal of approval.

The group performed hits like “Teacher” and “Would You Mind?,” giving the young crowd a taste of what the ‘90s and early ‘00s were made of.

Pretty Much’s performance of recent single, “Would You Mind?” was an ode to new jack swing and brought back memories of Bell Biv Devoe. The track wasn’t very “new” sounding at all, but rather encompassed what really makes Pretty Much entertaining –– their harmonies and pristine production. The group’s connection to ‘90s pop waves was evident throughout the night.

The boys hinted plenty of ‘90s references in their tracks, keeping parents and older siblings interested as well. They even featured a doo-wop intro taken right out of Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love Again,” proving that the vocally intriguing boy band takes lessons from the classics that came before them.

Max, a pop artist who is fairly new to the scene, came out for his set decked out in a sequin ensemble like a true pop star –– or rather superstar dancer.

He wasn’t as vocally talented as acts like Pretty Much and Julia Michaels, but what Max lacked in vocal ability he made up in charm. Max’s stage presence was felt by the audience, and inspired the first crowd eruption of the night.

The pop star’s unexpected cover of Outkast's “Mrs. Jackson” worked surprisingly well. The singer let out his inner-Andre 3000 as him and his hype man kept the crowd pumped through the track’s duration.

Barl Townsend, a resident of Niagara Falls, enjoyed the newcomer's performance.

“Max was so upbeat and amazing,”Townsend said. “He got the audience so hyped.”

The highlight of Max’s set, however, was easily his hit ballad “Lights Down Low,” which had the audience swaying their phone flashlights.

“‘Lights Down Low’ really got everyone in the audience interacting with him,” said Lilly White of Buffalo.

Rising pop star Astrid S. opened the show with a stripped down acoustic set of her three best-known tracks.

The Norwegian pop star set the standard for the night's vocalists, yet the younger crowd of kids and teens didn’t take much notice. The audience clapped when expected, but other than that they didn’t seem to react much to the singer’s pretty acoustic ballads. Still, for her “largest show” yet, Astrid S. did just fine.

The most surprising aspect of the night was the lineup order. Following Grammy-nom Michaels was Disney star Sabrina Carpenter. For any other show this would’ve been absurd, but Kiss 98.5 knew what they were doing. Carpenter kept the young crowd involved and excited as they sang along to hits like “Thumbs.”

Kissmas Bash did more than just entertain a young crowd like it aimed to do. The show kept parents involved with throwback-sounding tracks, and even managed to introduce listeners to Grammy nominees and rising stars in the process. It was family fun disguised as a kid’s night out.

Maddy Fowler and Brenton Blanchet are editors and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.


Brenton J. Blanchet is the 2019-20 editor-in-chief of The Spectrum. His work has appeared in Billboard, Clash Magazine, DJBooth, PopCrush, The Face and more. Ask him about Mariah Carey.