Seeing fabled southern rockers Kings of Leon slog through the motions in Baltimore is a lot like watching a bedraggled worker punch the clock in anticipation of another long day. Kings of Leon is no longer an upstart band with a quirky past (three sons of a preacher man, plus cousin, who all run off to find salvation in rock’n’roll). These days, they’re seasoned pros, stars in Europe who are finally selling out concert halls in America. They’re regularly programmed on alternative radio stations and have just begun to appear on the covers of magazines. Maybe they didn’t expect their newest record, Because of the Times, to become popular enough to prompt such an exhaustive—and, if the Baltimore show is any sign, exhausting—tour.
The set kicked off strongly enough with what’s become a regular opening number, bluesy shuffle “Black Thumbnail”. It’s one of the more popular tracks from Because of the Times, and its explosive chorus (“Don’t leave no smell on me”) is twice as electrifying live. The problems started when the band moved into the sexy stomper “Taper Jean Girl”, from 2004’s now-classic-sounding sophomore effort Aha Shake Heartbreak. Drummer Nathan Followill began the song with a slower variation of its pounding beat, but when he finally sped up to the familiar tempo, the band just didn’t seem to be together. That, unfortunately, set the tone for much of the night.
All of which is a shame, because the Kings had prepared something of a dream set. They pulled out early faves like “Molly’s Chambers” and “Trani” alongside popular new tracks like “On Call” and “Knocked Up”. Frontman Caleb Followill sang impeccably, as always, but seemed disengaged—except when the band launched into the mindless neo-’70s rocker “Camaro”, which, according to online message boards, seems to be one of the their least-loved tracks. Maybe he was trying to be defiant. The middle Followill brother isn’t exactly known for witty between-song banter, and he had little to say between songs. Even if his shockingly short new haircut suggests he’s ready to go study, his too-cool-for-school attitude remains.
A note about the songs: If you’re unfamiliar with this band’s music, try to recall those classic Woody Allen movies in which fortunate Upper West Siders complain that their dream jobs seem “empty” and their active sex lives are causing them “emotional issues”. Transplant that to the rock realm, and you get Caleb Followill, who gets to cavort with models, indulge in arrest-free drug use and travel the world only to complain about erectile dysfunction, hair loss woes, and other people’s hats. That said, it’s to Caleb and the Kings’ credit that they’re able to make like Allen and create absolutely transcendent work from what many might call whining.
Part of what makes Kings of Leon such an exciting experience on CD is the meticulous interplay between Caleb’s manic rhythm guitar, Jared Followill’s riff-heavy bass parts, and their cousin Matthew Followill’s complimentary lead guitar lines, which often “answer” the lead vocal. At the Rams Head show, Matthew’s guitar could hardly be heard—and when it was audible, it sounded either anemic or out of tune. Thus, the band’s musical equilibrium seemed completely off. To be fair, the guitarist looked ill (his face was flushed), but he was well enough to demand cigarettes from the band’s roadie cousin. Only youngest brother Jared seemed “on”. He jumped around, danced a bit, and couldn’t seem to stop smiling. His hook-happy bass lines both led the band and anchored its performance. Ah, the enthusiasm of youth! (Jared is 21 years old.)
But, though it was an off night for the band, it was genuinely exciting to hear a slew of the Kings’ crown jewels. The (mostly male) crowd dutifully sang along with such fan favorites as “King of the Rodeo”, “Milk”, “Soft”, “Fans”, “The Bucket”, and “True Love Way”. Considering how tightly-knit this band’s arrangements are, it wasn’t a surprise that no extended jams were attempted. The group also eschewed obscurities or non-CD b-sides (like their excellent new rocker “Woo Hoo”), perhaps surmising that Baltimore audiences don’t have the same hipper-than-though listening habits as those in London or New York.
It was only on the closing song of the encore, “Slow Night, So Long”, that the band finally hit a deep groove. As the Who-like opening chords resounded (to ecstatic cheers), bass, drums, and guitars thrashed in unison, and the band started to play with a purpose. Their purpose, of course, was probably to get off stage, grab a beer, and eventually prepare to punch in again for another night of work.