Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Concert review | Kings of Leon

It’s hard to go to a concert in the middle of the week if you’re a regular 9-to-5er. There’s either work from the office that needs to be taken home, dinner needs to be cooked, being a good husband/wife/father/mother is also a priority, and well, to whom do we bear our grievances to when we want to catch a show during the week but the prospect seems impossible? The answer by-steps my imminent dehumanization due to technology: THE INTERNET. MSN Music posted on their website the complete Wednesday, April 18, 2007 show by the Kings of Leon in the Hammersmith Apollo in London. To paraphrase JM Coetzee, in the desert of the week Wednesday has become an oasis of unbridled, unrestrained, and the best contemporary rock n’ roll in the world.

Thanks to MSN Music, this was the second time I’ve seen Kings of Leon. The first time was
at the State Theater in Portland, Maine during their tour in support of their second album, the fabulous and underrated gem Aha Shake Heartbreak. Because the crowd’s energy was so palpable, the sold out Hammersmith Apollo became the only existing physical location in the world for the duration of this concert. The concert-goers jumped, sang, clapped in unison, and showed their appreciation throughout. To your humble desk-bound viewer, experiencing the concert via the internet made me feel like I was violating their privacy – an overeager surveillance employee, if you will. Like golfing in rollerblades, it also felt conspicuously inappropriate to be sitting with headphones on while digging a concert.

Since 2005, the band has undergone tremendous changes. No, the lineup and the story behind the band is still the same: brothers Nathan, Jared, and Caleb Followill on drums, bass, and rhythm guitar/vocals, respectively, and first cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar, started playing their instruments while on the road with their preacher father/uncle Leon. The sound is what has changed. Where on their first album, Youth and Young Manhood, the band sounded like Creedence Clearwater Revival crossed with Southern garage rock, their latest album, Because of the Times released April 2007, drew on Nashville folk and on the bands they’ve been touring with as influences. The impression U2’s The Edge had on Matthew (I will address the musicians by their first names, unless we want to play a game where we guess which Followill is being referred to) is immeasurable; the atmospheric textures, not to mention the favored delay pedal, color this album more than the fiery bursting solos of the previous albums. Although folk and country have been lyrically influential to the band, here the Bob Dylan influence is felt more in the music than in the words on songs such as “The Runner.” Knowing the changes the band has undergone recently, what are we to expect from a concert?

Unlike Pearl Jam – another touring partner of the Kings of Leon – who have lamented their role as a live human juke-box, the Kings of Leon played their older songs with the same zeal as their new songs. The concert began with “Black Thumbnail,” one of the harder rocking songs off the new album. What is particularly noteworthy about this tune is the heavy non-linear propulsion in the chorus due to the absence of the hi-hat. As an opener, “Black Thumbnail” was perfect: it gets the crowd – and computer-bound me – psyched and ready for an evening of honest rock n’ roll. “Taper Jean Girl,” from their second album, displayed their knack for groove. Rarely does a band that rocks this hard groove as tightly as the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main St.

There are two aspects that separate this band from most others. One, Caleb’s voice. It sounds like Bob Dylan plus Eddie Vedder (no coincidence in touring partners) while on the road for fifty years and deep fried in Nashville soul. Two, the role of the bass. Unlike most if not all contemporary rock bands, the riff lies in the guitar, but with the Kings of Leon, the riff lies in the bass; in essence, it is a lead instrument occupying its own ground, away from the overexposed guitars. Examples abound: “Soft,” “Arizona,” “Milk,” “California Waiting,” and definitely “Slow Night, So Long.”

The fourth tune in the show was “My Party,” also from the new album. It is unusual to hear mostly bass and drums in the verse beneath the singing, and have the bridge and chorus sound like the Kings’ take on Talking Heads’ “New Feeling.” The most successful single off the first album, “Molly’s Chambers,” sounds like such pure freewheelin’ rock n’ roll that – sexual innuendos aside – it could be a CCR tune. “Milk” and “Four Kicks,” both off their second album, touched on seemingly conflicting sounds – new wave guitar and the Stooges-like energy – but certainly worked as back-to-backs. “Fans” was a tribute to their loyal and enthusiastic fanbase in London.

In the desert that is the mid-set, lies “Arizona,” the closing tune to their latest album. It was a wonderful example of their album-length paean to the alt-folk-country aesthetic. Matthew’s guitar in the non-bridge space between the verse and chorus is the proud son of The Edge and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The melancholia is palatable while Jared kept the tune honest, fulfilling the chord changes by not solely playing the root chords. For a fuller sense of their use of space, please check out Because of the Times. In many songs on the album, notably the intro in “Black Thumbnail,” the sound coming from the amps and the sound coming from the guitars are separate; you can hear the pick on the strings and the vibrations of the strings with each other while also hearing the consummate sound from the amplifiers. Additionally, their use of atmospherics create a three dimensional space within the music.

“The Bucket,” from Aha Shake Heartbreak and also in the mid-set region of the concert, is arguably the band’s biggest single thus far. Underneath the tune’s unabashed poppiness – including the mandatory “wooo!” at the beginning – is a track about young rock stardom vis-à-vis mortality. In the midst of sex, alcohol, anxiety, airplanes the world over, and being the object of idolization, the band find themselves questioning their inertial movement. The song’s hook is “Eighteen/balding/star; golden/falling/heart.” At that point in their career, three out of the four members were twenty-three years old or younger; not exactly eighteen, but the idea is pretty clear. There are two lines that jump out at me from the second verse. The first is, “You kick the bucket, and I’ll swing my legs.” Of course, as is the case in interpreting Nostradamus’ vague nonsense, when it comes to interpreting lyrics, there are millions of ways of going about it. The way I read and hear it is that it’s a metaphorical image of suicide. He – the singer, the band? – is standing on the bucket, noose tied around his neck. Then we kick the bucket, his legs swing, and he hangs. I interpret this as meaning that he is driven to commit suicide by other people but he is the only one that will suffer the consequences. The second line is the most telling and it appears in the last line of the second verse, “Too young to die but old is the grave.” Being “eighteen” (the ultimate symbol in rock n’ roll of youth) is too young to die, but growing and being old is the same as being dead, aka the grave. It is a beautifully penned line, contemplative and regretful at the same time. “The Bucket” is the best song the Kings of Leon have done, excluding “Knocked Up” from their latest album, which is inexplicably and disappointingly not performed in this concert.

The three songs that close the set – “California Waiting,” “Spiral Staircase,” and “Trani” – are essential listening. I’m not sure why – and how could I be? – they lined up this trifecta from their first album as the set closer but the result was mesmerizing. The first track clearly demonstrates their riff-in-bass preponderance, but the chorus – tambourine and all – is what elevates this wistful track to the status of classic rock for the 21st Century. “Spiral Staircase” is just magic. It is their interpretation of the Bringing It All Back Home sound; country-inflected, full of grit and attitude. “Trani” is divided in sections of slow drunken crawl and erupting rhythm and energy. The performance is exceptional, the vocals, drums, and lead guitar dissolving into seeming chaos while the bass, true to its nature, keeps moving forward with one note. To end the set with these tunes is an exercise in ever-ascending tension and release, classic rock strut, brawn, attitude, and energy. How the Kings of Leon came back for a three-song encore that included the funky and odd “McFearless,” the driving and certainly voice-killing “Charmer,” and the tune whose title states a simple, inarguable truth “Slow Night, So Long,” I don’t know; but thankfully, they did.
(All thanks to Lady Groove for suggesting this review. I should also mention that this is an attempt at creating an “interactive” article, meaning that the concert I refer to is available to stream online in a song-by-song basis. Instead of me telling you what I think and then you nod and say “cool”, you can check out the songs yourselves in order to agree, disagree, or qualify my statements. Thank you 21st century. Photo credit: Statia Molewski)


Anonymous said...

excellent, excellent review. keep it up. this is gonna turn into money at least sometime.

Ely Delman said...

Thanks for the kind words, anonymous. I hope you're right! Hope you continue digging the site. Best, E.