After two years in financially precarious suspension, live music is finally, unapologetically, back. To judge from the BBC’s coverage, Glastonbury went off like there was no tomorrow, and in the capital this writer witnessed explosive performances this past week from Jack White, LCD Soundsystem and even the septuagenarian Rolling Stones, each unleashing pent-up energies in thrilling communion with ecstatic audiences. For better or worse, it’s just like the pandemic never happened.
One had to wonder whether Nashville, Tennessee’s notoriously monosyllabic Kings of Leon would drop their usual frosty demeanour sufficiently to engage with this magical moment.
When the hirsute quartet first landed here at the height of 2001-02’s garage-rock revival, their Southern Gothic backstory – the three Followill brothers, raised itinerantly by their preacherman father, augmented by a cousin guitarist – first ignited interest on our shores, until they finally cracked their home nation with 2008’s artfully streamlined Only by the Night. With five 2000s albums in seven years, Kings of Leon were firing on all cylinders in all departments, except onstage, where they appeared curiously frozen, like startled deer caught in the headlights of the very success to which they’d aspired. Had they rolled up at Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller in 1960, à la The Beatles, club owner Bruno Koschmider would surely have barked “Make show! Make show!” at them to the point of cardiac arrest.
On the first of two nights at the O2, the capital’s favourite enormodome was properly packed, with nary a vacant seat in its vertiginous upper tier, where but a few weeks ago that entire section was curtained off for lifelong arena-filler Alice Cooper. Rowdy singalongs greeted supporting Scots pop-rockers The Snuts, and the intermission’s crowdcam (a nod to Kings of Leon’s latest album title, When You See Yourself) prompted couples of varying gender mixes to snog enthusiastically for the big screens.
There was so much energy in the room, and after 15 years odd performing at this top level, the Followills expertly capitalised on it with a robust display of rockin’ son-et-lumière, all but bereft of cheap showman’s patter, often recalling Pearl Jam with more visual pizzazz and less of the Eddie Vedder hand-wringing monologues.
After a pair of looseners from the new record, a three-track run from 2004’s UK-conquering second album Aha Shake Heartbreak culminated in Taper Jean Girl’s irresistible Motown beat, which took the concert to a thrilling early high. In the ensuing Knocked Up, cherubic cousin Matthew relinquished his guitar to corral a massed “oh-oh-oooh” chorus, while brother Caleb’s melancholy alt-rock songcraft resounded to the point of rattling the dome’s roof structure.
Out front, 40-year-old Caleb cut a less terrified figure than he did in the 2000s, swept up in every song’s execution, his voice a one-setting bark which brought uniform soulful urgency to each, from Crawl’s Jesus & Mary Chain-esque cacophony through to Cold Desert – the set’s only outright ballad. When, in a regrettable repetition of Tuesday’s show in Glasgow, a brawl fit for a Tennesseean juke joint broke out in the front rows, the unflappable Followill calmly halted proceedings until the perpetrators had been removed. “C’mon guys,” he muttered, “let’s not be throwing any punches”.
Before Fans, he reminded the crowd that he’d written the song as a thank-you for Britain’s initial acceptance, also mentioning that they’d all brought over their wives and kids especially, because, he noted, “our biggest fans are right here”. As the mighty refrains of Use Somebody and Sex on Fire soon sailed forth, it was hard to imagine a more impassioned union of performers and audience.
Kings of Leon play Manchester Arena on July 5; kingsofleon.com