Concert review: Kings of Leon

By Kristyn Pelletier

Last Friday night on the Saddledome stage, Caleb Followill brushed his hair off his forehead and glared out into the crowd as he pronounced the following: “I am going to let my hair down.”

Followill, one part of Nashville four-piece Kings of Leon, would speak few other words to the crowd that night. Instead, the musicians chose to communicate through the roughness of their early southern garage rock sound, smoothed over with slick radio hits and a newly-acquired mainstage swagger.

But before this would happen, their throne was prepared by openers The Sheepdogs. These Canadian boys have come a long way from assembling in their hometown of Saskatoon to recently gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. The nostalgic-sounding four-piece sounded a lot like The Steve Miller Band, with definite influences from many 1970s superstars, such as Burton Cummings of The Guess Who. Their retro vibe nicely juxtaposed the more new-age sound that would be created by the Kings later on in the night.

Starting the night with “Radioactive,” Kings of Leon set the tone with the eerie rocker edge they are known for. Frontman Caleb ground out the vocals charging “Crawl,” creating the perfect harmony between their harsher gritty sounds and the more elusive echoing melodies of their newer material.

Mid-set, Caleb’s few words and standoffish attitude came as no surprise after the recent troubles the band has run into during their most recent tour. In a drunken stupor last July in Dallas, Caleb skipped out mid-concert to drink a beer backstage. He never returned to the stage and the 29 shows remaining in their American tour were all cancelled, leading to a great deal of speculation on the part of fans and the rock press. Some were concerned about Followill’s mental and physical health, others about the band’s future.

But whether they re-grouped in the name of professionalism or kinship, Kings of Leon seemed determined to put it all behind them on Friday. If anything, that night, letting their hair down was on the bottom of their priorities during the set list — they seemed to want to concentrate on rocking out the songs, despite their lack of interaction with fans.

That being said, musically the band did not let their fans down. Their live sound was just as dependable as throwing on one of their albums, and Caleb hit every one of his gritty sounds perfectly. “Arizona,” “Revelry” and “Back Down South” had harder-hitting rhythm section patterns, which showed off much of the instrumental talents of the band’s lead guitarist — who deserves as much credit as Caleb when it comes to the band’s distinct, sharp and drowning sounds that ebb and flow throughout most of their albums.

This is why, after being a long-time fan of the Kings, I hate being a tough critic of a band whose songs make me sentimental and nostalgic — their songs always created the perfect harmony between happiness and sad truths in my melodramatic teen years.

Their newfound mainstream popularity hasn’t necessarily taken away from previous gems like “Arizona,” “Ragoo,” or “Wasted Time,” but during their Calgary performance, their lack of authenticity as performers and lacklustre stage presence definitely took away from the integrity of the songs I once considered unique. They’ve got a few sounds that still define — Caleb’s voice, Cameron’s haunting signature sound on the guitar — but by and large they’re a band that exists within the G-rated radio comfort zone. The unabashedly sexual lyrics used in past albums like Youth and Young Manhood or Aha Shake Heartbreak remain largely buried as the band’s talents have become recognized by a much wider demographic.

When it came to the encore, the crowd had already been left in the dark cheering for at least 10 minutes before the band returned to the stage to finish with their breakout hit “Sex on Fire.” With a slight stint of pyrotechnics, the band members rushed offstage. Caleb lagged behind the rest only slightly to calm down the crowd as he motioned goodbye, hovering his hands overtop of the audience, and then exiting quickly stage left.

Ultimately, though, a clean, tight live musical performance couldn’t compensate for the band’s disconcerting attitude and disinterested on-stage demeanor. If Kings of Leon had stepped off their thrones and interacted with their Calgary fans, or even if they had seemed a little more into their own music, the concert would have been far above average. I was also really hoping for the band members to pay tribute to some of their less radio-friendly songs that (dis)graced their first albums, and leave the fans with some dirty down-south vulgarity grit in their mouths after belting out the lyrics to every one of their songs. I was left feeling somewhat aurally satisfied, but almost completely emotionally disengaged.

Overall, when your recent superstardom leads you to give off the vibe that you’d rather be on a yacht with your Victoria’s Secret supermodel girlfriend instead of appreciating your fans, there’s something lost. The band’s drift away from their traditional mantra of crude, romantic poetics has done little to mask what appears to be their present musical mission — to head straight for the heart of generic modern rock. Their sex used to be out of this world, but now it’s just on fire.

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