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Push it out: Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon.

photo:Joe Putrock

Joe Cool’s Garage
By John Brodeur

Kings of Leon

Revolution Hall, Oct. 5

When Tennessee’s Kings of Leon were signed to RCA in 2003, the band had been together for all of a month, and had never played a show. This is worth mentioning because, in 2005, they are one of the best bands playing rock & roll. They were good then; they’re great now.

A lesser band could have coasted by on backstory alone: The three Followill brothers (their cousin Matthew plays guitar) were raised in a sheltered environment; their father, a preacher, home-schooled the lads between sermons. The band’s first two releases—2003’s Holy Roller Novocaine EP and Youth & Young Manhood LP—were derivative-but-striking blasts of hipster- magnet guitar rock, with a generous swamp-boogie swagger. Critics fell all over themselves praising the band, European success came calling, and the band toured the world.

Those 18 months of touring that followed the release of Youth & Young Manhood had an obvious effect on the band: Their second full-length, Aha Shake Heartbreak, found the much-improved unit reveling in the partying, drugs and groupie love that they had only read about until two years prior. It’s a decadent, confident record, featuring some of this year’s weirdest rock moments, and marble-mouthed vocals that make Kurt Cobain’s work on Nevermind sound like frickin’ Shakespeare. Yet despite the accolades, despite having a single (“The Bucket”) creep into rotation on modern-rock radio, and despite having perfect haircuts and pinup-caliber good looks, Kings of Leon haven’t invaded the collective unconscious here in the States.

Maybe that last part’s just a little untrue. Last Wednesday, the four Followills, looking like they’d walked in straight off a video shoot, opened their 70-minute set with “Molly’s Chambers”—the one from the Volkswagen commercial. What an ace move. Not that any of the 250 or so in attendance needed a reminder of what brought them there—the audience was much more animated here than those at a number of more “danceable” shows in recent months—but it was wise of them to level expectations from the get-go.

The set was professional, perfectly sequenced, and designed for engagement. The sweltering boom-bap boogie of “Pistol of Fire” and “Happy Alone” was followed by the Aha Shake standout “Razz,” whose burbling disco bass and sharp guitar licks sounded like the Kings’ approximation of postpunk. “The Bucket,” which hilariously rips off its melody from Tori Amos’ “Silent All These Years,” was an expected crowd-pleaser. And “Soft,” a rollicking, um, ode to whiskey dick, opened with an ass-backward samba groove, then flourished into an all-out steamroller, with the two guitarists trading eighth-note jags in an invigorating rush of sound.

They pulled back for “Milk” (“she wanted your bah-tay”), then amped it up again for the sideways stomp of “Four Kicks,” before closing with a quartet of first-album tracks, including the near-perfect “California Waiting.” In fact, that about describes the show on the whole. Kings of Leon bring precision to an idiom (garage rock) that is characterized by recklessness and deshevelry, and boy is it welcome. The playing and sound were clear as day (except for the vocals, of course), due in part to the three string players’ awkward-but-precise picking style, a hand posture that looks arthritic in its contortion. Plus, there was little in the way of mindless rock-guy banter; the guitarists obsessively tuned after each song, proving that, despite their perfect haircuts and pinup-caliber good looks, they care more about sound than style.

The Gentleman Improvises

Robert Fripp

Revolution Hall, Oct. 4

Robert Fripp is a man of striking contrasts. Since the dawning of King Crimson in 1969, he’s played guitar sitting down, a fact made more noticeable by dint of this small, still man issuing some of the loudest guitar sounds ever emitted indoors. He has disbanded and re-formed Crimson several times over the ensuing decades, overlaying each new coming and going with finely wrought theoretical musings on art, commerce and life. He speaks with the careful precision of a mathematician, but as an improvising musician he exhibits a range of emotional shadings.

In one of the most surprising bookings of the year, Fripp came to Troy’s Revolution Hall last week. This was one of his solo “Soundscapes” performances, an evening of improvised music utilizing his guitar and a battery of synthesizing interfaces. While lacking a title as evocative as either No Pussyfooting or Evening Star, a pair of albums he made with Brian Eno, it’s in the same sonic realm. He built up textures as successive guitar notes were held and amended with other prerecorded sounds he’d trigger with his instrument, foot pedals or hand-worked dials and faders.

Besides George Jones, a man who loves to get back to his hotel room to watch television, it’s hard to name any other artist who likes to start early, but that’s exactly what Fripp did, taking the stage before the clock struck eight, the advertised and otherwise universally ignored showtime. He played two long improvisations, between which he talked about his work and fielded questions from the audience of about 150. Gentleman that he is, he handled the ludicrous first question (“What’s Brian Eno like?”—not even “What’s Brian Eno like to work with?”) with grace and humor.

Fripp’s playing was accompanied by a slide show that was there only to give people’s eyes something to light on. Photos from his life, they were projected behind him, and he was clearly not playing to their content or rhythm, ignoring them completely. If he’s intent on keeping this visual component, it’d be much more successful if it were also being played by someone, so that it was interactive in the moment and not just a preset computer program.

It must be noted that the evening was all the more unique for how the venue was turned into a lecture hall. It was not a big night for beer sales; rows of chairs filled the floor, the audience (almost exclusively male, and decidedly gray or bald) in rapt attention for the full 90 minutes.

—David Greenberger

Rising and Coasting

Rob Thomas, Antigone Rising

Palace Theater, Oct. 5

This show marked Antigone Rising’s first return to Albany in a while; between 2000 and 2003 these New York girls (who are former legal clients of mine) were basically an adopted local band, playing and recording here constantly.

But they got called up to the bigs, and for the last couple of years have been getting groomed for stardom. Signed to mega-hitmakers Lava Records, AR have been working on the debut disc for more than two years, and a few months ago released a live unplugged Starbucks-only recording (From the Ground Up) to get the buzz going. Appearances on Good Morning America and Emeril(!), and constant mentions in music news outlets followed, showing that there’s some heavy industry juice positioning AR for greater things.

Ain’t it nice when the music business gets it right for a change?

Even better, the band haven’t lost their punch. The edges are softened a little, the charge is a little more focused, the gonzo craziness is toned down, the image is approaching glamourpuss-y, but the girls still rock that thing. Singer Cassidy remains a force of nature, blonde hair flying, voice yeowling and scatting, bringing a song to an emotional head with a pure sustained high note, and just leaving it all, honestly and messily, on stage. Drummer Dena Tauriello is brilliant, forceful and thoughtful, with a right foot to die for. The Henderson sisters bookend the stage with shimmering, lockstep guitars and those incredibly filial background vocals; new bassist Jen Zielenbach is all-pro, with the cutest damn stage moves, sort of a cool muted feminized version of Verdine.

The short (35-minute) set, focusing on the Starbucks record, was wildly received by the faithful. Wait’ll next year when the real record comes out, the gloves come off, and Antigone Rising are the headliner. It’s all in the cards, and they’re gonna kill.

I admit to being baffled by Rob Thomas. The Palace was pretty much sold out, at $50 bucks per person, for this guy. Formerly with the hugely popular (I guess) Matchbox 20, he helped put Carlos Santana rightfully back in the spotlight with his song (and his singing) on Santana’s album Supernatural, and now he’s got a solo album selling like crazy and a tour that’s going gangbusters. He writes solid songs that echo hit songwriters of the past, without bringing a whole lot new to the table. He’s a pleasant singer with an easy boy-next-door charm. Fronting a band of session players paid to look interested, and with a bland Vegas-y stage set, Thomas earnestly delivered a no-bullshit career retrospective. The huge crowd hung on his every word, standing and screaming for most of the show. And you can’t argue with that.

—Paul Rapp

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