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Band on fire: Kings of Leon.

Photo: Julia Zave

South’s Gonna Rise Again

By John Brodeur

Kings of Leon, the Whigs

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 6


An overnight sensation in the United Kingdom with their 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood, Nashville’s Kings of Leon took a longer road to mainstream success here at home: Until recently it’s been an iPod commercial here, a few film placements there, and an undying love from music critics. But momentum has been building for the Followill boys; it seemed inevitable that the band would eventually have a breakout pop hit, and graduate from warming up arenas (for the likes of U2 and Pearl Jam) to headlining them.

On Sunday, Kings of Leon made their triumphant return to the Capital Region, headlining in front of a nearly-full SPAC amphitheatre and a respectable lawn audience—a far cry from the few hundred folks they entertained at Revolution Hall five years ago. Times have changed, of course: Like many a youngish band, they’ve changed their tune over time, from the soul-inflected garage-rock of their first two releases to the shoot-for-the-rafters arena-rock style of 2008’s Only by the Night. (2007’s Because of the Times was a transitional letdown, the ever-difficult third album made only more difficult by the band’s insistence on expanding their horizons beyond their actual capacity.) Sunday’s turnout was evidence of the band’s recent ascent into the über-mainstream: Grammy Awards for Night’s first two singles, “Sex on Fire” (Best Rock Performance, 2009) and “Use Somebody” (Record of the Year, 2010). Naturally these songs received the most rapturous audience response, but even in the knowledge that “Sex” was a radio staple for a year it was still shocking to hear 10,000 people singing along to its chorus.

Despite broadening their sound and appeal, the Followills (brothers Caleb, Nathan, and Jared, with cousin Matthew), joined onstage by an auxiliary instrumentalist, played the first third of their Saratoga gig as if they were still showcasing for record labels, stringing together a half-dozen tunes without a break. In front of a relatively low-key stage set (a customizable wall of lights, some red smoke, a few video screens) the band strummed through tunes from all four studio albums, with “Taper Jean Girl” emerging as an early highlight.

There were few frills: Bassist Jared Followill stepped up to a synthesizer on a few numbers, and vocalist Caleb Followill employed vocal distortion on another. The distortion might have helped the singer in more places: He claimed to have “no voice,” and indeed his typically pinched growl sounded subdued, if not lacking in range. But this is a minor problem when you have thousands of backup singers. (Sunday’s set was reportedly cut short, and a midweek show in Scranton, Pa., was canceled to accommodate his recovery.)

While the Kings seemed bored by a few of the older numbers (“Molly’s Chambers” was, in a word, lethargic) and just plain pooped by the end of the main set (ditto for “On Call”), they rechanneled their energy into the more expansive material like slow-burning encore-opener “Knocked Up” and the still-ubiquitous “Use Somebody.” They also debuted a few new tunes, including the just-this-side-of-Mellencamp anthem “Southbound”—which should be a massive hit at their Bonnaroo-headlining performance this weekend. For that one they were joined onstage by Athens, Ga., trio the Whigs, who earlier turned in a fiery 35-minute opening set, despite playing to a lot of empty seats under a still-setting sun. In a perfect world, “Kill Me Carolyne” would be as big as any of the Kings’ hits.

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