There is a saying (or if there isn’t, there should be): ‘a band isn’t born arena rock, it becomes arena rock’. Once an act leaves the basement or local dive club, usually coaxed out by a record company exec holding a bag with a dollar sign on it, things begin to change. Clothes change, venues get bigger, and songs begin acquiring more ‘woah’s.
From their humble garage rock roots, Kings of Leon have become the premier modern proponent of stadium-packed-to-the-rafters rock. Through the popular and critical acclaim of 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, to the radio rock megaton bomb ‘Sex on Fire’, the Followill brothers and their cousin have seamlessly moved from one success to the next, securing their position, at one point or another, as the biggest rock band in the world.
On this, the night that closes their current UK tour, one would be forgiven for thinking that statement undoubtedly true. All the pieces are in place; right after a mesmerising support set from Virginia dream pop wonders Wild Nothing, the crowd finally leave their hiding places to fill the enormous main room of Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. An image of a heart appears on the screens surrounding the stage, beating in time to the opening of ‘The End’, as the group emerge silhouetted against a hot red backlight.
Tonight’s set, just like the others on this tour, blends classic Kings of Leon with the current, and it takes seeing them in their arena habitat to realise how the two differ. Their debut single ‘Molly’s Chambers’, while indebted to the showy hard rock of AC/DC, plays limply in the current setting, as does ‘Four Kicks’, appearing here in a softened form compared to the bar-fight scuffle of the album version. ‘The Bucket’ sits rather awkwardly as the chiming guitars reverberate around the room, yet still manages to charm. Recent single ‘Waste a Moment’, on the other hand, bears the unmistakable features of ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’, all tailor-made for fist-clenching and arm-spreading like Michael Jackson in the ‘Earth Song’ video, complete with plenty of ‘woah’s to go around. But that’s just it: they all sound very similar, like a group trying to recapture the magic of nailing that very first anthemic chorus again and again.
Famed for their aloofness on stage and in interviews, the band occasionally rush through numbers, as if glancing at their watches to make sure they’ll catch the last bus home. When the curtain drops for a brief acoustic digression with ‘The Runner’ at the lip of stage, Caleb’s solo guitar and vocal is hastily bolstered by the rest of the band on pared down instruments. The effect is less Stop Making Sense and more a haphazard school play.
Though the ‘classic’ component of Kings of Leon’s set was short a few choice cuts (no ‘Knocked Up’? No ‘Charmer’? No ‘King of the Rodeo’?!), many of the band’s solid gold hits were doubtlessly present and accounted for, if iterated rather flaccidly. For better or worse, the newer material had the crowd hooked before each first bar was through. Whether Kings of Leon are still the biggest band in the world or not, their loyal fans certainly still act like it.