Photos by Mark C. Austin
Kings of Leon may be the most frustrating band out there at the moment. They’re killer musicians, girls love them and Tuesday night the three Followill brothers and one cousin proved they can sell out Verizon-size venues despite largely getting the cold shoulder from radio (though college and satellite radio are an entirely different story).
So Tuesday should have brought a great show from a band riding high off the cover of the most recent Spin, coming into its own as one of the foremost rock groups of its generation. But it didn’t.
It started well, with an ominous Mozart-type requiem segueing into the dirty electro-fuzz groove of “Crawl,” from new album Only by the Night. Slow, sultry and loose, it was all suggestion and insinuation, a perfect opener – but also, it turned out, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come.
Bassist Jared Followill did the lion’s share of the heavy lifting early on, shuffling between funky disco boogie and the ornery, enervated underpinnings of “Molly’s Chambers,” one of the few songs Tuesday from 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood. His hip-tempting rumblings on “Taper Jean Girl,” from the Kings’ 2005 album, contrasted perfectly with guitarist cousin Matthew Followill’s sharp leads. They were wire-taut, and had obviously not been partying hard enough to skip rehearsal.
After sleek Only by the Night single “Sex on Fire,” which paired an agreeable reggae rhythm with the chords of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and a sure-handed grasp of dynamics, though, the Kings began to drift off. The band has been alternately criticized and praised for its similarities to U2 – particularly Matthew’s Edge-like pealing riffs and ringing harmonics – which surfaced for the first time on another new one, “Be Somebody.”
Nothing wrong with ripping off U2, of course, and Kings of Leon chose the right songs to borrow – “Be Somebody” split the difference between the wide-eyed sketchbook ofBoy
and abstract soundscapes ofThe Unforgettable Fire
. But starting here, the set became steadily more glacial and standoffish, like an invisible velvet curtain had descended between band and crowd that prevented the Kings from delivering the payoffs they could – and should – have.
“You guys are pretty quiet for a Texas crowd,” singer Caleb Followill said not long after. Well, Kings of Leon were pretty quiet for a Southern band.
Herein lies the problem. Since Youth and Young Manhood, the Kings have gone out of their way to distance themselves from their Southern roots – in their music if not their lifestyles – repeatedly citing bands like the Strokes and Pixies as primary influences over the Allman Brothers (though a bit of “Sweet Melissa” crept into one song) and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though this is a substantial part of the band's appeal, particularly overseas, ultimately the Followills aren't doing themselves any favors.
It wouldn’t take a cover of Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” or Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” to get that point across, although how cool would either one of those be? The Kings’ contemporary gloss on Southern rock is one of the things that makes them so popular, but their refusal to refusal to drop the hammer ultimately felt like they were cheating both the audience and themselves, like buying a new Corvette and then driving it at 40 mph.
And make no mistake, the band does have a definite talent for ballads. The brooding “On Call” and sticky, mysterious “Closer” were evidence enough of that. In fact, if they insist on continuing in their current moody direction, the Kings would be fools to get anyone besides Daniel Lanois (The Joshua Tree
, Bob Dylan’s
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) to produce.
At the very end, “Charmer” – which Aftermath initially mistook for a Pixies cover – finally brought about some real movement, both from the band and the crowd. But it was a little late.
If the Kings ever truly let loose, they could be really dangerous. But maybe nobody wants to be dangerous these days. Maybe they’ve forgotten how, or never learned in the first place. Either way, Kings of Leon are far too good a band with too much potential – still – to get away with playing it safe. – Chris Gray