The appeal of Kings Of Leon, and specifically their enduring popularity, has always eluded me. For a long time, it felt like the phrase ‘Kings Of Leon’ was a code, the kind of name that gets thrown around early on in an exchange about what music you like. A credible band you can name to convey to your friends that you have average to good music taste, without appearing overly concerned with the details, just to make sure they know that you were only listening to Meghan Trainor ironically.
You don’t ever hear Kings Of Leon listed as anyone’s favourite band, or hear people talking about that amazing new Kings Of Leon album, or the life-changing experience when Kings Of Leon headlined the Pyramid Stage in 2008. Maybe I’m spending time with the wrong people, but it’s always seemed that with a few exceptions, the ‘Sex On Fire’ band have become victims of their own vanilla. With each new album, the brothers spiral slowly into a downward trajectory of quality, maintained only by their rumbling history. I was intrigued to see how the band would handle headlining Hyde Park British Summer Time festival, a 65,000-strong crowd full Kings Of Leon and ‘Sex On Fire’ enthusiasts alike. What was this magic ingredient that I was missing that has made them so phenomenally successful? I arrive, open mind at the ready, prepared to be proven completely wrong. A beautiful summer’s evening in Hyde Park seems the perfect setting.
Almost single-handedly responsible for the Southern rock revival in the early noughties, they have a good supply of strong tracks to wheel out, even in the face of Caleb Followill’s sometimes less than exciting vocals, from their earlier records. ‘Molly’s Chambers’, ‘Red Morning Light’, ‘King Of The Rodeo’, and ‘Four Kicks’ in particular embody the band’s peak at their nonchalant, swaggering best. Live, however, the band choose to abandon the majority of these, with ‘The Bucket’ and ‘King Of The Rodeo’ the only two of their better-known early songs to really emerge in the set, and it feels like the absence of the others hangs over everything. When you have seven albums, two hours isn’t so long to get through your greatest hits, but it’s a shame that Kings of Leon neglect the best section of their discography.
Somewhere in between albums #2 and #4 – it’s hard to say exactly when – it’s clear that a music label exec sat the Followill brothers down and demanded that the next album be “more arena”, something that drove the commercial success of Because Of The Times and Only By The Night and the improved chart positions, even if it was more gradual Stateside, where record buyers had spurned the band’s first two offerings. Only By The Night remains special, in the same way you become attached to all the music that gets played in your mid-teens, but these feelings remain, and as easy as it is to dismiss this album as the moment they “sold out”, that’s not strictly true. Live, the tracks bloom; an atmospheric awe overtakes the crowd during ‘Closer’, but others, such as ‘Crawl’, are dismissed by the crowd as Kings of Leon simply failing to engage. The sound quality might not have been great, but it the guitar technique in this track and the fret noise which elevates it, fail to come through sufficiently, leaving a disappointing and unremarkable impression.
The most recent albums have earned the band’s highest levels of commercial and chart success, but they’ve also seen the band retreat from the kind of scrappy energy and rough charm that once made them exciting. A few songs peak, including ‘Back Down South’, which made for a welcome, relaxing addition to an early section of the set, and ‘Find Me’, a passionate, rousing number which engages the crowd, despite that niggling feeling that it could easily have been toned down and re-written for Selena Gomez. However, there is a distinct lack of interest from the crowd, and despite the album’s successes, the newer tracks float over people’s heads in a nondescript manner, failing to leave any lasting impact. Playing newer songs is always hard, but Kings Of Leon’s latest effort, ‘WALLS’, has been around for the best part of a year, and the lack of interest from the crowd is a subtle reflection that perhaps the Nashville band just aren’t as good as they used to be, and lack stage presence. Songs that have the potential to be really great became a backing track for people dancing in a field, and the ones from their early days that would have transformed the set are sadly missing.
Somewhere along the way the Followill brothers have lost their sparkle, and though working a crowd that big is hard, I remain unconvinced that Kings Of Leon are anyone’s favourite band. Their “magic ingredient” continues to escape me. The event was fun, but it wasn’t exceptional; Kings of Leon remain drifting in the middle of the road, mediocre at worst, pretty good at best.
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