A lot has been made in the press lately about exactly who the Kings of Leon are. Sure, Talihina Sky, their recent documentary was meant to shed some light on the upbringing of the Kings. And while it did expose the band’s truly pastoral roots, the attempts of Talihina Sky to give the band some much needed blue-collar cred was still overshadowed by recent events which cast a prima donna-esque veil over their supposed “down home cred”.
First the band left the stage during a 2010 St. Louis gig, after pigeons infamously shit on or around bassist Jared Followill. This drew more than enough snarky commentary, but was only a warm-up for the drama surrounding their July 27, 2011 show in Dallas, when lead singer Caleb Followill rambled almost incoherently about the heat before leaving the stage, not to return. The band cancelled the rest of their American tour, with no plans to reschedule. Rumours circulated about the band’s durability in relation to supposed alcohol abuse.
But finally, the band reappeared to finish a string of dates throughout Canada and the States before swinging through the Southern Hemisphere. Their current Australian tour is set to be their last before a self-imposed six month hiatus.
So now would seem to be the best time to actually figure out who this band is. Without the hype of a new record (or subsequently as it would seem with the Kings, a new image) to promote, the band’s recent three-night stint in Melbourne, Australia served as a glimpse into the true nature of one of rock’s most discussed and dissected bands. They stood on a stage, away from the constant media attention they attract in both America and England and had one simple job to do: entertain a nearly packed house of fans who, after having these shows rescheduled from March of this year, had been waiting a long time for tonight.
Fans slowly streamed into Rod Laver Arena during Band of Horses’ opening set. Admittedly, the band do carry an arena-ready sound in tow, but with limited room to manoeuvre onstage and the house volume keeping things in check, it was tough for the band to find a groove. By their set closer “Funeral”, they had certainly turned a few heads, but by that point, the crowd was focused on what was next.
A healthy mixture of meek couples, scantily clad women and men with boyish intentions, the crowd welcomed the Kings with open arms, but still, hardly a deafening roar. There was a slight feeling of trepidation in the crowd, almost as if to say, “show us what you got”.
The band responded swiftly out of the gate, with an intense combo of “Four Kicks”, “Crawl” and “Taper Jean Girl”. Opening with older numbers certainly warmed up the audience, and Caleb Followill did his best to get a feel for the crowd, regularly moving from side to side and sixing up those within sight. A few smiles and a few winks later, it was clear that amidst he sonic assault, the band still ascribes to the idea of a “Classic” cool, in which their role as a performer is not to look too cool to want to be there, but instead to charm the pants off anyone within striking distance.
By the time the band hit “Radioactive”, the lead single from 2010’s Come Around Sundown, all pleasantries were out of the way and it was time for the band to hunker down into the meat of their set. They’d felt the crowd out, and Caleb Followill’s voice still sounded scratchy and hoarse. In an ironic twist, this ragged edge to Followill’s voice provided him with the kind of depth that a polished voice never could. As the Caleb Followill sang of salacious encounters with women and drinking his way through life, the hurt in his voice finally sounded palpable.
Yet hoarse voice or not, Followill did his best to win over the Melbourne crowd. The band has no shortage of stadium-ready, fan-approved hits in their repertoire, but when promoting Come Around Sundown, a record comprised largely of softer, meandering tunes, how would the band find both a balance and a groove?
They’d need the crowd on their side.
Followill addressed the crowd in full after “My Party”, telling a story of meeting a girl earlier in the day. Apparently this girl had been kicked out from the previous night’s show for standing up and enjoying herself. “I think you should get kicked out if you’re sitting down,” said Followill dryly, which brought a good three-quarters of the crowd out of their seats and on their feet. Between bassist Jared’s cliched yet endearing rock star poses and the potent drumwork of brother Nathan, the Followills had the crowd in the palm of their hands.
It would have made this reviewer happy to report that the band took the ball and ran with it. But throughout the meat of the set, which ultimately can make or break an arena gig, the band wavered. Sure, tracks like “Fans” showed the band moving remarkably swiftly, providing undeniable proof that at times, their 10+ years together provide chemistry onstage, regardless of the drama off the stage.
But “Revelry” sounded muted and disjointed and “Arizona” lacked any punch whatsoever. In attempting to figure out just who the Kings of Leon are, one could make the argument that the band is trying to figure the same thing out. After all, their set relied more heavily on Only by the Night than Come Around Sundown, and barely touched on cuts from Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, the two records which can nearly be universally agreed upon as well, being quite awesome.
Uneven set or not, the Kings are a crafty bunch. So far wrapped up in efforts to find success, the band has surely picked up a lesson or two on how to win a game. It was sometime after the halfway point of their set when the Kings threw caution to the wind and in a sense, made a dash for the end zone.
And it worked. “Notion” turned the crowd. If the band’s mid-set lull forced some fans back into their seats, it was “Notion” which pulled them back on their feet. The track soared with unmitigated grace, and soon a handful of crowd members took to their partner’s shoulders to try and capture the sky-high vibe of the track.
Before “The Bucket”, one of their standouts from Aha Shake Heartbreak, the band completed their history lesson, mentioning that it had been five years to the day that the band first played the venue. They were opening for Pearl Jam at the time. Yet Caleb’s mention of this fact wasn’t just simple stage banter; instead, he was appealing to the rock purists in the crowd, reminding them that they’d paid their dues. And in a sense, he outlined some of the history of the band. Sure, a lot of their history is mired in shit (literally) but when Caleb continued his statement by stating “Unfortunately, Pearl Jam ain’t coming up next,” fans understood that the band still has respect for their elders, and they have aspirations that will continue to grow. As to be expected, “The Bucket” soared.
“Molly’s Chambers” and “Knocked Up” brought forth massive sing-a-longs and a wave that stretched throughout the entire arena. By the time the Kings closed their main set with the ubiquitous club hit “Sex on Fire”, the band could have robbed the crowd of house and home and no one would have complained.
As the crowd rose to the place they wanted them to be, the band replied by tossing numerous picks and drumsticks into the crowd in an attempt to break down the theoretical barrier between them. To my right, a boy of no more than five years old was held up by his mother throughout the evening, singing along to nearly every song. Drummer Nathan Followill was seen giving fierce instructions to a stagehand towards the end of the show, and the observant couldn’t help but wonder if there was some prima donna demanding going on.
A few minutes later, the stagehand made his way to the boy’s seat and presented him with a drumstick. The mother held the boy up and screamed for attention, but it was unnecessary. Nathan was already following them, waiting for his reaction. There was an exchange of grins that will likely take some time to disappear.
No one can fault Kings of Leon for swinging for the fences during their live show. After all, if the past year has taught the band anything, it’s that the general public can turn on them at any moment. Their second of three nights in Melbourne mirrored the band’s very approach and history; they’ve had their bumps along the road, but if they continue to focus on pleasing the very fans that have stuck by them, they’ll likely emerge on the other end a better band and better people.