It felt like Peggy and I had entered some parallel universe Friday night. The strange sensation kicked in as we drove over the hill from Studio City to the Greek Theatre, where the Kings of Leon were headlining, and found ourselves in a traffic jam on the Hollywood Freeway because of all the cars heading to the Hollywood Bowl to see (are you ready?) Hall & Oates, on the first of two nights with the Spinners. Now, if someone had told me a year ago that 30,000-plus people would pay to see an act that hasn’t had a hit in a quarter century, and that another 5,000 or more would flock to the Greek to see a young band that’s seemingly barely on the radar in L.A., I would’ve dismissed the scenario as a pipe dream. Happily, it turns out there are enough music lovers in Tinseltown drawn to the holy trinity of good songs/good singin’/good playin’ to nearly fill the city’s two biggest outdoor venues.
As a Hall & Oates fan since Abandoned Luncheonette in 1973, I’d be stunned if the Bowl crowd was anything less than gaga over the sounds and style of the impeccable Philly soul men (looking forward to reading Roy’s assessment of the show in the next edition of Trakin Care of Business on hitsdailydouble.com). But I’m here to tell you that the fans who came to see the Kings of Leon went absolutely bonkers over them, standing (or more accurately boogalooing) throughout the entire near-two-hour set and putting up the sort of roar you hear from a full stadium at a college football game. How did they even know about this band? The only place you can hear them on L.A. terrestrial radio is on KCRW…but then, terrestrial radio isn’t how people discover music anymore, as Friday night’s turnout so amply demonstrated.
The Greek offered a killer ahead-of-the-curve bill, as the Followill boys brought along young Atlanta-based neoimpressionists the Manchester Orchestra (missed ’em, unfortunately) and L.A.’s own Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who were at their mesmerizing, lurking-in-the-shadows best as they led the crowd through the gloaming and into the night.
The place went nuts when KOL hit the stage, starting even before the struck the chunky chords of the opening number, the characteristically refracted, poetically titled stadium rocker “Black Thumbnail”—and I was shocked when the goateed dude next to me (who looked like Murray in Flight of the Conchords) started singing in word for word at the top of his lungs, even nailing Caleb’s utterly unprecedented vocal character, at once conversational and incantatory, with its roil of phlegm, pine tar and raw silk, sliding upward at the ends of lines, Valley-girl-like, in a real-time metaphor of yearning.
As my ear adjusted to the surreal moment, I realized there were thousands of would-be Calebs forming a massive, chanting chorus that covered the hillside—and they’d keep it up through the whole show. Inspired by the enraptured response, KOL ratcheted up the exhilarating urgency that permeated everything the played, offering living proof of what their longtime producer, Ethan Johns had described to me a few months ago as “spiritual elevation.”
Interesting, the newest songs—they played all but two tracks from Because of the Times (my album of the year, in a runaway—and it’s been a really good year), on which they’ve perfected the unique ricocheting rhythms that emanate from their genetically synchronized racing pulses and their musical teeth-cutting at countless Pentecostal services—brought an increased intensity to the selections from the first two albums. The groove starts with oldest brother Nathan, 28, who locates and messes with all sorts of rhythmic counterpoints on every part of his kit, and extends to youngest brother Jared, 21, whose own rhythmic inventiveness seems to mesh with Nathan’s like Velcro while seeming wholly his own. Cousin Matthew transforms lead guitar into a rhythm instrument, slicing through the carnivorous grooves as if his Gibson were a Ginsu knife.
The template is perfectly set in the album’s astounding seven-minute opener, “Knocked Up,” which features the most striking use of space in a rock song since Jimmy Miller was producing the Stones—all the better to silhouette the interlocked elements, including a wordless background chant that starts as a kind of spur-of-the-moment aside and blossoms into a thrilling expression of us-against-the-world brotherhood. Naturally, they saved “Knocked Up” for the first encore, and people started singing Oh-ooh-whoa-WHOA-oh as soon as the band kicked into the song’s tantalizing, trench-deep groove. Talk about goosebumps.
That “Knocked Up” rhythmic sauce enlivened other songs in the set, particularly the ferociously funky “My Party,” with its addictively gleeful refrain, “Ooh, she’s at my party,” and the swaggering “Fans,” which starts out with the similarly delectable line, “Homegrown…rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio.” The way Caleb fired it off Friday night, it sounded like both a credo and a promise.
I fell in love with them back in January, not at a show—this was my first KOL performance—but during an interview with all four of them in a Nashville restaurant. In person they’re just as irresistible as they are onstage—26-year-old Caleb dead-earnest but loaded with spontaneous punchlines his speaking voice identical to his singing voice; Nathan the ringleader, dry and intense; Jared with his cover-boy looks, guileless and passionate; and cousin Matthew, 23, seemingly lost in thought, opening his mouth only when he has something particular to say. These guys and that album they’d made—well, they had me hook, line and sinker. This was a show I had no intention of missing, and it didn’t surprise me that it was everything I’d hoped for. What surprised me was that I was surrounded by believers every bit as ardent as I am, and that was an immensely gratifying surprise. Taste is alive—hallelujah.
They didn’t do anything but play—no patter, no posing, just takin’ care of business. And, like Radiohead live, they were all the more cool for their laser-like focus on the matter at hand. The closest thing to theatricality was Nathan blowing bubbles between swigs of beer, the pink globes he kept inflating framed by his shoulder-length dark hair. Watching them, I was reminded one point Caleb had made with unmistakable pride during the Nashville conversation. “We’ve quit tryin’ to be fuckin’ cool,” he told me. “This is gonna sound really cocky, but at this point, we know we’re cool. I don’t mean that in a negative way; we’re comfortable in our skin, and we realize we’re cool enough now where we don’t try to be as cool as the other bands. Fuck it—we just try to go for it.”
Yesterday, Peggy was telling one of her friends about the show. “I loved them—everybody loved them,” she said. “And they’re all so cute. It was almost like seeing the Rolling Stones.”
During my phoner with Ethan, he made a provocative assertion. “This is gonna sound a little absurd,” he told me, “but I do think that they’re the best rock & roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a candle to these guys—they’re mind-blowing.”
Now I get it, Ethan—I totally get it.