Opening Cincinnati's summer concert season is always a difficult duty. A constantly fickle city in terms of their live music, Cincinnati crowds demand constant excitement and stroking from the band they are witnessing. Well, then what better band to choose for this tedious task than Kings of Leon? —-Hot on the heels of a sold-out performance at the Mecca of live music, Madison Square Garden, a Grammy win, a Rolling Stone cover story and their best-selling album ever (Only By The Night), not to mention actual radio airplay, the Kings returned to Cincinnati Tuesday night as the most hyped act in America. And they delivered.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention openers, The Walkmen. Their brand of Dylan-inspired Indie Rock struggled at times on the big stage of PNC Pavilion. Of course it didn’t help that the 4,000-seat venue had only 500 people in it when they came on stage. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer, made several comments throughout the set about how empty the seats were, at one time sarcastically saying, “This place is sold out tonight, right?” However, that didn’t stop them from running through a powerful 10-song set with the precision of a band that has been around a lot longer than the show’s headliners. The consummate professionals, the band closed out their set with the one-two punch of “In The New Year” and “The Rat.” and I walked out to get a beer thinking, “Man, all these people missed a great show.” And considering the tickets were upwards of $50, I was shocked more people didn’t at least stop in to check them out.
At 9 p.m. on the button, the houselights went down and Kings of Leon took the stage, opening with face-melting Only By The Night standout, “Crawl.” The band seemed confident and cocky, as is the case with the four lads of Leon, and one could notice from the start just how much lead singer Caleb Followill has developed as frontman. He commanded the stage, strutting around like he had been playing to crowds this size for years. (Maybe that’s because he has, overseas in England and Australia, where the Kings are cultural phenomena.) The lighting rigs took a cue from Radiohead’s last tour, as there were nine LED panels above the band displaying various graphics and colors throughout the show, implying that the band and their crew were ready for this jump for a long time.
The material from Only By The Night sounded great in the larger setting, as the Followill clan has claimed that it was designed to do so. “Sex on Fire," the best groove on the album with the worst lyrics in the history of the human race, was the obvious crowd favorite. So much so, that the biker in front of me and his “babe” were writhing in ecstasy and sucking each other’s tongues. I threw up in my mouth a little bit. But the song itself sounded great, with Caleb’s howling vocals and Jared’s slinky bass line leading the way. “Notion” and “Use Somebody” soared with Matthew’s Edge-like guitar lines taking center stage, and the band really playing up their new arena-ready, sing-along sound. “Cold Desert,” a ballad that would typically disperse the crowd, elicited a massive end-of-song response and really emphasized the diversity of the band’s catalog. It was the best moment of the night. Other highlights included the bass-fueled romp “Charmer,” acoustic ballad “Fans” and a rocking show-closing version of “Black Thumbnail”.
All told, the band showed that they have adjusted well to the larger confines they now inhabit. Caleb was cordial to the audience, unlike many times the band has been here in the past, and the crowd obliged with the rowdiest applause I’ve heard from a Cincinnati crowd in a long time, maybe ever. Kings of Leon proved Tuesday night that they are going to be a hard act to follow in this year’s concert season, let alone in years to come.
(Photo by Keith Klenowski; for more pics from the show, go here)