Aftermath has seen almost every single step on the road to fame Kings of Leon have taken since their debut album Youth and Young Manhood in 2003. We heard a track off that album in mid-2003, "California Waiting," on a radio show while living in San Diego that year and the band stuck with us ever since. The first time we saw them live was at Meridian in 2006 at a free Camel cigarettes show. The entire band was still hirsute and on fire, coming off a weekend of debauchery at Austin City Limits, where they played a quick midday set. Lead singer Caleb Followill and the rest of the family band looked frail and feral, the way rock bands are supposed to. He had to drink a honey concoction between songs to keep his voice from breaking. With all the free smoke in the room, that couldn't have been easy. In summer 2007, the band came to town armed with Because of the Times, an album which arguably broke down the pop wall that Youth and Aha Shake Heartbreak could not. Everyone took notice of the band, even though to those who read NME and Spin religiously they were indie-rock greybeards who were destined to be the next Walkmen. Aftermath covered the show that night for Rocks Off, back when it was still Houstoned Rocks and a ghost town compared to the Grand Central Station of news and clamor we are today. KOL put on an amazing show, opening with "Knocked Up" and running through their early work with a speed-addled abandon. Tuesday night, a different band came rolling into Toyota Center, a band that was road-weary yet muscular. It reminded us of seeing friends before and after they came back from the military. KOL look like they have been through hell. It's hard to feel bad for them considering their Hades is rife with dirty girls with implants and leather boots, surrounded by more cash than Aftermath may ever see. The arena was damn near sold out in every since of the word. No one knew anything before last fall's radio blitzer Only By the Night, instead just waiting for the drum beat on songs like "Taper Jean Girl" to at least dance in time. It was a much better show than the one we saw last Friday night at ACL, where the band looked uncomfortable and out of sorts. After all, Austin has got to be like Vegas for a touring band after slogging through awful food and women while on tour in the other great 48. Technically, the band was firing on all cylinders, but it wasn't the same band we had grown with. The line of barely-drinking-age kids in the row in front of us drove that point home. Never looking at the stage and forever taking bro-tastic photos of themselves sipping rum out of a concession cup, they and the crowd at large only perked up at "Sex On Fire."
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As a sort kiss-off to the fair-weather crowd, the band played what sounded like nearly half of Times, straining the patience of a throng who would have been more than happy to hear "Sex" and "Use Somebody" on infinite repeat. In hindsight, it took balls to close with "Black Thumbnail," seeing that half the crowd was already walking out before second-to-last song "Use" was even half over. Maybe that was their test, and hopefully the Kings will take this as a hint to scale back next time. Aftermath is not ready for these guys to become another Nickelback.