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It was telling that Kings of Leon began their Madison Square Garden concert performing behind a curtain, their giant shadows looming over the crowd during their furious rendition of “Charmer.” After the song was over the curtain dropped to reveal the band, but an air of distance nonetheless remained throughout the course of their nearly two-hour set.
There’s no denying that the Tennessee-born band has the musical dynamism to fuel an arena rock show. Their hard-driving brand of Southern-infused classic rock has the sort of anthemic quality that inspires sing-alongs. Indeed, the throngs of mostly twenty-somethings in attendance seemed to know the words to every song, including those from the recent Mechanical Bull which were generously spotlighted.
But for all their music’s power and the high-volume precision with which it was delivered, the Followill family band lacks the showmanship and spontaneity to truly involve the audience. It members — lead singer/guitarist Caleb, bassist Jared, lead guitarist Matthew and drummer Nathan, augmented by multi-instrumentalist sideman Chris Coleman — never moved from their staked-out positions on the large stage. Their 27-song set rarely deviated from the recorded versions, with no surprises either in the song selections or the arrangements, and Caleb’s sparse between-song patter was composed of banalities on the order of “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time” and “Everybody having a good time tonight?”
Clearly, showmanship is not a priority. But the music’s sheer power effectively compensated for the band’s emotional reticence. Performing such songs as the countyrish “Back Down South,” the propulsive “Don’t Matter,” the funky Family Tree,” the squalling “Trani” and such crowd favorites as “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire,” they played with a no-nonsense intensity that never let up, with Caleb’s strong vocals holding up remarkably well despite the furious pacing.
The show’s main nod to arena rock spectacle was the giant-sized screen featuring an array of projections ranging from special effects-infused close-ups of the musicians to eccentric visuals ranging from vintage girlie films during “Supersoaker,” fiery explosions on “Pyro” and images ranging from galloping horses to neon signs, the latter directly referencing the cover of their recent album. “Cold Desert” was accompanied by fake snowflakes raining down on the crowd, as if we were at the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show, while the three-song encore was accompanied by a dazzling laser light display.
In terms of sheer musicianship, the concert was exemplary. But it’s hard not to wish that the band at least tried to give the impression that they were having as much fun as their rabid fans.
Those who had the foresight to arrive on time were treated to an especially fine opening act: rising star Gary Clark Jr., the Grammy Award-winning blues singer/guitarist who will no doubt shortly be headlining arena concerts of his own. Infusing his blistering set with the sort of dazzlingly virtuosic solos that have justly merited comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, the performer connected with his audience in a way the main act didn’t. Whether tearing through “Black Lights” or unveiling a come-hither falsetto on “Please Come Home” — “This one is for all the lovers out there,” he purred while introducing the latter — he well demonstrated the reasons for his rapid career ascent.
Back Down South
Wait for me
True Love Way
Sex on Fire
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