Kings of Leon Returns to the South with Friends in Tow

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Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, The Whigs
Verizon Wireless Music Center
Birmingham, AL
September 20, 2010

p1019888-copy.jpgIt is an uncommon thing for a "mainstream act" to have crossover appeal in the jam sector. There are examples that one can point in retort such as Pearl Jam, but let’s face it – most jam folk possess a form of music snobbery. This wasn’t the case last Monday night in Birmingham, where a massive and eclectic throng of gatherers assembled at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre for a lethal dose of indie with Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, and The Whigs. That is, if genres came in injectable form.

The world of popular music has become a place where beauty, excess, and costume jewelry and teeth reign supreme. As a result, purity is something that has become increasingly difficult by which to come. Vocalists sing the words of others and often do so through a machine that actually makes it seem as though they can actually carry a tune.  It is for this and other reasons that bands like the Kings, Keys, and Whigs come as a true breath of fresh air. It is clear that this opinion is shared as Kings of Leon’s rise to their current major headliner status has been brisk.

The night began with Athens, Georgia-based The Whigs. This trio came to get down heavily and with a pelvic thrust that is all too often missing in rock and roll these days. With his wiry frame, flagrant guitar, and boisterous voice, front man Parker Gispert could at times be mistaken for a Joey Ramone-type of figure with the angry stage flair of, dare it be said, Kurt Cobain, as he proclaimed that he "didn’t care what your old man thinks" in the opening percussively driven number, "Already Young." This kid simply owns the stage and does not lose himself to his antics that are only fed into even further by the able backing of bassist and drummer Tim Deaux and Julian Dorio respectively. Rather, the antics seem anything but unnatural and possess a genuineness that seems to pay homage to the feelings that his tunes stir. It was infectious, and while many had thought that they had come out to see the Kings and Keys, they soon found themselves to be entrenched in what was taking place before them.

It was during this set that the diversity in crowd could be easily observed as darkness had yet to fully break on the comfortable nearly fall night. There was hippy flailing, frat guy beer chugging, skinny jean knee pumps, lip ring wearing emos standing sadly still, and girls in heels who just stood there and looked pretty- all intermingling peaceably while still visibly uncomfortable amongst their opposites within the same confine.

Following a short gear change, The Black Keys took the stage to reverberating approval. This Akron, OH based duo, consisting of Dan Auerbach on vocals and guitar and drummer Patrick Carney, has gone from a town perhaps best known as where Alcoholics Anonymous was founded to international sensation, particularly in the indie/alternative scene(s).

A duo is always an interesting ensemble to witness in the live setting. Many things can be accomplished in a studio that simply cannot translate into the live experience. With this said, it certainly is not this way in all cases, and it was not the case with The Keys. Although they invited guests on the stage for two of the tunes of the evening, the show was all duo in terms of from where the majority of the power came. 

p1010076-copy.jpgOpening with 2002’s "I’ll Be Your Man," the Spector-like fidelity of this number was a far cry from the Leonard Cohen track of similar name. This supple number had just the right touch of looseness in style that the audience needed as there was still gelling that needed to take place in order that the landing zone for Leon could be cleared of any dividing debris that came in the form of clothing and beauty as noted earlier.  The simplicity in the maraca play of Carney seemed to set the tone for succinct focus. This coupled with the comfortably familiar Creedence-like refrain riffing of Auerbach created a familiarity in sound and beat wherein even the most tone deaf of souls could easily find a groove and the music did its job: bound the crowd as one.

After a brief foray into something a tad more edgy in "Strange Times," The Keys focus seemed to shift entirely into being vocally supportive set. This is not to say that the beats did not remain to be the backdrop, because they definitely did and in so doing, allowed Auerbach to demonstrate his uncanny vocal pitch range.  Followed by the tune where The Keys were killed in the music video, 2006’s "Your Touch," the set would wrap with the bluesy guitar leading, heavy, and at times spacey "I Got Mine." This is an outfit who is definitive of originality and quite possibly will be one that will be discussed in generations to come. For now though, it was time for the sons of a preacher man, the Followill brothers, the Kings of Leon.

Kings of Leon hails from Franklin, TN – population 41,000. It has more or less become a suburb of the urban sprawling Music City, Nashville. It was in this small town that Caleb, Nathan, and Jared Followill grew up sons of an Evangelical minister. In 1999, they formed a band with cousin Matthew decided to honor their father-and/or-uncle Leon, in their band name.  By 2003, they had released a their debut album, Youth and Young Manhood, that received immediate critical acclaim and earned them opening slots on tours with The Strokes and U2, and the following year with Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam.

Fast forward seven years and Kings of Leon has released an album at an average of a biannual clip, has a new one on the horizon, and is now headlining this stellar three band affair. It literally is the embodiment of the American Rock & Roll Dream.

The horde of attendees at Oak Mountain were in anxious anticipation as the set change was obviously a tad longer than the previous two. The anticipation snapped as the lights dimmed signifying the band’s entry to the stage in complete darkness and took position for the inflammatory number, "Crawl." This song screams introductory number with its dominant percussion introduction and limbering in of vocals from Caleb to a distorted guitar and an ever present under-filament of the dirty bass line provided by Jared before face melt ensues courtesy of Matthew. With its chorus of "you better learn to crawl before I walk away," it served to provide enough passion to continue the ignition for the evening.

p1010172-copy.jpgThe multi-faceted family continued to impress in a set that was marked by pure chemistry. They showed themselves to be well rehearsed but not in a stoic sense in a set with plenty of musical contrast. "All of London sing ‘cause England swings and they sure love the tales I bring. And those rainy days, they ain’t so bad when you’re the king. The king they want to see." Lyrically folksy with heaviness being placed on the on the extended vowels in this number, "Fans," showcased the versatility of a band that has a front man but no true leader as far as one that requires pure ownership of the stage is concerned.

To close out the set, "Trani" would make its acquaintance with the Bible Belt of Alabama. Oddly, the same Belt that Kings of Leon calls home. With a glimmer in each eye on the stage, it was clear that the boys were glad to be back in their neck of the woods as they droned on the dirty belly of a secret town with cheap trick hookers, bare chested boys, Greyhound stations, and cocaine bumps "…like a tranny on ten." It is no wonder that Dylan liked these cats. Their songs tell stories as they have effectively taken a slice of Americana, blended it with folk and blues, and kept it fresh with an alternative twist.

In a night wherein originality remained supreme, delivery was on time. In a crowd of virtually every walk of mostly young life, it is safe to say that something different was taken from the show based upon what mindset was brought into the show. However, universal music etches on the slate of any mind that has had any life experience written on it. Hence, identification was found in the music and for these 4 or so hours, commonality was found where it always can be, in the live music experience… given that the right musicians/songwriters are on stage.   

Click the thumbnail to view david Shehi‘s Shots from the show!

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