Kings of Leon Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion September 22, 2010
It took us long enough, or it took them long enough, but Aftermath has had our last cup of Kings of Leon haterade. We found them tepid at Verizon in 2008 and standoffish at Toyota Center last year (a show we didn't review and left before it was over), but Wednesday's 90-minute set at the Woodlands left no doubt in our minds that they deserved to be there.
It's hard to say what changed our minds exactly, though. The Kings' music is still brooding and sullen, most of all on big singles like opener "Crawl," "Notion" and "On Call." But if they were Luke Perry in 90210 before, they're Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront now. Whether they were feeding off the wildly enthusiastic crowd or simply that much better, the band had twice the intensity of either of their two previous Houston visits.
Musically, there's no doubt they've improved. They've muscled up, and not just because of the hired gun on extra guitar and keyboards (sorry, didn't catch the name). Always family-tight, bassist Jared Followill and drummer Nathan Followill were downright telepathic Wednesday. Guitarist cousin Matthew let those two do the driving, adding color and embellishment like the Pixies and U2's axemen, except grittier than either one and peeling off some memorable riffage during the T. Rex/Led Zeppelin barnstorm of the night's final song, "Black Thumbnail."
Lead singer Caleb Followill, bless his heart, still sounds like he's trying to pass a kidney stone and singing through a mouthful of oatmeal. But he's also unfailingly polite, apologizing for his hoarseness after nearly two straight years of touring, and the way he would wince away from the microphone to get a particularly emphatic lyric out (like "I'll be there" in "On Call") was especially endearing. Sorry, ladies... he's engaged now.
Or maybe the Kings are just more comfortable in their own Southern skin, done with the indie navel-gazing and constant fretting about selling out that's dominated their interviews since Only By the Night came out two years ago. The three songs from upcoming album Come Around Sundown certainly hinted as much.
"Mary" had a definite lineage back to '60s soul, plus a nice Chuck Berry break from Matthew; "Radioactive" balanced a New Wave aura with cowboy-ballad backing vocals also reminiscent of "Where Is My Mind?"; and take away Nathan's omnipresent throb, and "Back Down South" could be a John Mellencamp song, or possibly even a hot country hit. We're expecting a Little Big Town cover any day now.
Aftermath also saw a lot more of the Kings we saw the first couple of times we caught them, in their Youth and Young Manhood salad days. "Molly's Chambers," actually from Youth, was one long sustained testosterone-saturated growl. "Four Kicks" was pure punk energy, and "Thumbnail," which we've already mentioned, is worth mentioning again. It rocked.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, Kings of Leon sound like U2 and think like the Rolling Stones. No wonder they're huge. And no wonder we've finally come around.
Personal Bias: Diminishing.
The Crowd: Young, female and hot. If you are a single dude, you should have been there.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Margaritaville!" Um... yeah.
Random Notebook Dump: Stay tuned for a separate review of The Black Keys a little later on today.
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Crawl Molly's Chambers My Party Mary Fans Revelry Closer Four Kicks The Bucket Notion Radioactive Sex on Fire On Call Back Down South Trani
Knocked Up Manhattan Use Somebody Black Thumbnail