In professional football, sometimes the starting quarterback goes down and the back-up jumps in and plays so well that player moves on to a starting position the next year with another team. It’s then quickly determined that he was always a great back-up but not a good starting QB.
This is how it feels with the Kings of Leon.
The Tennessee-based quartet of three brothers and a cousin (plus a fifth musician) brought their Mechanical Bull tour to the Moda Center in Portland on Thursday and played to an audience about the size an opening act can expect when touring with a much larger band. The upper bowl was covered with about 80 percent of the lower bowl and floor filled.
It’s not that Kings of Leon played bad. They played alright, sounded tight and no audible mistakes. They just didn’t perform or put on a spectacular show. In fact it felt more like they were the opening act, say circa 2005, when the band opened for U2.
Singer Caleb Followill’s voice was raspy by “My Party” just the third song, which at first, came across like sound issues but by “Back Down South,” the ninth song, it was at times beyond just scratchy and you wondered if the band might call it quits. He did offer an apology, of sorts, acknowledging the hoarseness of his voice and said the show was the band’s 22nd on a 29 city tour. (How will he get through tonight’s show in Seattle?) Props to him for sticking it out however to be an arena band it takes some professionalism to know your limits. He never once appeared to grab water but if he did it had little effect.
Kings of Leon opened their 26 song set performing “Charmer” behind a curtain with a video backdrop showing scenes likened to a horror flick. The studio version of the song is nearly unlistenable but it managed to come across OK live. “Rock City” was next, the first of seven songs from their latest album Mechanical Bull.
“My Party” third-up on the night, has that great opening drum cadence, but now, less than 10 minutes into the show Followill’s voice began to show signs of cracking. The single “Temple” also from Mechanical Bull helped push the show along.
“On Call” fell a bit flat but guitarist Matthew Followill put in for a pretty decent solo. The hip-swaying “Family Tree” got the audience moving a bit but “Closer” perhaps the band’s best song with the excellent vocal work and that beautifully haunting guitar backdrop didn’t quite measure up to the album version but mixed with the video back drop it was effective nonetheless. Caleb’s back-to-the-audience guitar solo didn’t help much, either.
Songs like “Charmer” and “Milk” sound more like what the band came up with screwing around before practice and then for some reason included them on their respective albums. Though “Charmer” held up, “Milk” along with, by that time (12th song), the botched vocals, was dreadful.
The audience seemed more into the performance then the band did at times and when Caleb commented after “The Immortals,” “I think we all need to pick the energy level up a bit,” it makes you wonder if he was talking to the crowd or his band mates. Perhaps it’s that down-home relaxed southern way of life but even when Caleb tried engaging the audience between songs he sounded like he’d just woken up.
KOL doesn’t offer much of an emotional pull to their songs like, for instance, how Coldplay works it. Nor do they command a strong catalog of songs with memorable and/or catchy hooks. Sure, they’ve got some radio worthy options like “Temple,” and “Use Somebody” but by and large much of their songs have little in the way of fun melodies and languish a bit like your generic A/C/D chord tune.
Despite that, KOL really shined on “Cold Desert” where Caleb managed to find his voice despite now 22 songs into the show. “Pyro” provided welcome relief coming after “Milk” and “The Immortals” mixed in a good use of lighting effects and the giant stage screen.
Bassist Jared Followill at times played with his back to the crowd and with the thumping bass line on “Be Somebody” and “Radioactive” taken on guitar by Caleb, he might as well have stayed behind the opening curtain. Caleb wasn’t exactly the engaging frontman as he too turned his back on the audience during two pretty good solos on “Closer” and “Four Kicks.”
None of the band members seem to have the chops for nomination into any Top 10 list of their respective instruments but Matthew Followill is no slouch on guitar and fingered off some solid work on “Crawl and “Black Thumbnail.”
Midway through the evening it felt like it was a matter of simply getting the job done until Caleb gruffled about the broken video projection. Oh, that’s what was wrong. No sooner did he swear about that then it popped on and accompanied the band for the rest of the show.
Ironically, KOL ripped off the best string of songs in the encore with the fantastic “Crawl” another good rock song in “Black Thumbnail” and one of their biggest hits “Sex on Fire.” The encore featured lasers for the first time and the entire 15 minutes or so felt exactly what the first 95 minutes needed.
Regardless, KOL is a good opening band but as a headliner probably better left to smaller venues and a 17 or 18 song setlist. Their catalog does not command a 26-song set though the band should be commended for cranking out so many tunes.
Kings of Leon – Portland (Moda Center) Setlist
2. Rock City
3. My Party
5. On Call
6. Family Tree
8. The Immortals
9. Back Down South
10. Wait for Me
16. The Bucket
17. Don’t Matter
18. Molly’s Chambers
19. Four Kicks
20. Be Somebody
22. Cold Desert
23. Use Sombody
25. Black Thumbnail
26. Sex on Fire