The Spin arrived at The Stone Fox last Thursday night hoping that the inoffensive surf-pop melodies of a certain Southern crooner would be enough to make us forget about our weather woes. (Spoiler alert: They weren't!) The Southern crooner in question is of course Dent May, the Mississippi-born multi-instrumentalist who is currently on tour with California's Jack Name. But before either of those lo-fi pop phenoms could take the stage, local support D. Watusi needed to do their thing.
As is often the case on weeknights at The Stone Fox, a sparse crowd was gathered for the openers — locals D. Watusi in this case. But their jams quickly conjured up an audience, and after a few minutes, a healthy-sized crowd had gathered for the Watoos' particularly psychedelic set, which was peppered with desert rock and gospel melodies. The bulk of D. Watusi's performance consisted of one long, uninterrupted jam, highlighted by Cam Sarrett's metronomic drumming. It was dizzying and captivating, and after D. Watusi's performance, we grabbed a seat to mentally prepare for Jack Name's light show.
Jack Name (whose real name is John Webster Adams, but he's previously perfomed under the monikers MUZZ, Fictional Boys and John Webster Johns) didn't bring a literal light show with him. We do swear though, the tunes from his newest LP, Light Show, had The Spin feeling a little synesthetic last Thursday. If bright, pulsating, warming light had an auditory equivalent, it'd probably be the shimmery, glitzy tunes from Name's latest record. Name was accompanied by a few familiar local faces, namely fellow rock 'n' rollers D. Watusi frontman Dillon Watson on guitar and Ryan Donoho (of OGG and more) on drums. Name is one of the headliners slated to play Nashville's Dead's Freakin' Weekend V fest this spring. Still, no complaints from us on getting to sneak in a preview set from the ethereal Jack a month ahead of schedule.
Closing out the night was Southern charmer Dent May. Though Dent may hail from Oxford, Miss., his tunes and general persona would fit right in with the current pop-rock landscape of Southern California, headquarters to such like-minded dudes as May's touring buddy Jack. That being said, May does have a distinctively different approach from Name. His songwriting and melodies are more straightforward, taking on smooth, almost easy-listening-like sensibilities in a live setting — kind of the best lounge music ever. Nevertheless, May's approach is just as garage-rocky as it is smoothed-out, just punk enough to keep his tunes from falling into full-blown bubble-gum pop territory.
On his latest album, Warm Blanket, Dent May complains that he was "born too late." He may very well have been born in the wrong region too. You get the sense that May would have been more at home in Brian Wilson's SoCal, cranking out one simple love tune after the other. Now that we think about it, ol' Dent might be on to something. Perpetual sunrays and no wind chill don't sound too bad right about now.
How much longer till spring again?
"It's just hard to see them maintaining arena status five to 10 years down the road without producing another 'Sex on Fire'- or 'Use Somebody'-sized hit on their next record ... the new challenge to the Kings is for them to prove us wrong on the previous statement."
It's words like that, taken from The Spin's review of Kings of Leon's 2009 Sommet Center (now Bridgestone Arena) show, that explain why the brothers Followill don't hook us up with review tickets. We're banned for life. But that didn't stop us from checking out Friday night's Bridgestone gig, Kings' first proper hometown show in nearly five years. The band hasn't had another "Sex on Fire"- or "Use Somebody"-sized hit on either of their last two records, Come Around Sundown and Mechanical Bull, and yet the 'Stone was sold out. Our words: eaten. Hats off, Kings of Leon.
And hats off to opener Gary Clark Jr. With a cookin' backing band in tow, blues rock's latest guitar god held a near-capacity crowd in the palm of his hand, wailing on groovy riffs over slow-churning shuffles and emoting lyrics about trains, time, pistols, Cadillacs, waking up in the morning, going to bed at night and babies who have gone and left him with nothing but his guitar in a wanting rasp. RIYL The Black Crowes, The Black Keys, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton. Unfortunately, from our side-stage vantage, a curtain blocking KOL's back line mostly blocked Clark Jr. & Co. as well.
So yeah, things got interesting last time we saw KOL, when they had secret-service-look-alike goons kick us out of their after-party at Whiskey Kitchen, which was, truth be told, totally appropriate (except for the fact that the Followills showed up to a Scene after-party at the very same bar two nights earlier). It might not help the Scene's relationship with the band now to say that Friday night's Bridgestone show was actually less exciting than the 2009 gig, if only for context. You're never going to beat the excitement of a band's first arena gig in its hometown. This show was a little better overall, though. The band sounded great — as in, totally faithful to their recordings — plowing through a catalog-spanning cache of singles and fan favorites. Without question, Caleb Followill has the most distinctive voice in modern rock, and dude's an excellent live singer to boot. KOL also looked promo-photo cool at all times — but there's a difference between looking like great rock stars and being great rock stars.
Rolling Stone once famously described the Eagles in concert as looking like "five guys loitering on stage," which would just as easily describe Friday's KOL performance were it not for the honorary fifth Followill — sideman/auxiliary multi-instrumentalist bro (and former Luna Halo drummer) Chris Coleman, who rocked out and gestured about as hard as a hired gun can from behind a lead guitarist's amp stack without making shit weird. Anyway, point is, stadium-size stage loitering didn't stop the Eagles from conquering the world, and apparently it can't stop — and won't stop — Kings of Leon's reign either.
Unlike most showmen in the ever-shrinking world of arena-rock gladiators, the Followills don't strive to create an illusion of intimacy onstage. In fact, most of the time they play as if we're not even there watching. The Followills themselves hardly even interact with each other, aside from Caleb and lead guitarist Matthew turning toward the drum riser every once in a while to lean into their axes and signify how much more intense the rawk just got. Meanwhile, Jared Followill has perfected his bassist power stance. The brothers and cousin never move far from their stations, and when they do, it's never with much haste. But in fairness, it's hard to move quickly in leather jackets, plus the word "mechanical" was written right there on our tickets.
At the end of the day, when it comes to putting on a goddamn rock show, Kings of Leon are the most painfully perfunctory performers in the genre. And at this point, even they seem to know it. For the majority of the show, the band members were barely ever in the spotlight, relying instead on a dazzling light show and an IMAX-size video wall projecting arty footage of running horses, doughnutting hot rods and the like, interspersed with effects-bathed images of the band onstage. These images carried the show visually, making the Followills a supporting cast to their own spectacle. What's impressive is that while the Followills don't do much in the way of connecting with the crowd as performers, the music they make still does.
The punch-drunk, party-ready crowd — a mix of casual and diehard fans alike — seemed to love every minute of the show, singing along to both old singles and recent album cuts with Beatlemania-worthy gusto — a true testament to Kings of Leon's staying power and the strength and catchiness of their catalog. Speaking of which, "Back Down South" is straight-up bro country. Seriously, the Followills should've sold that shit to Blake Shelton, while the Mechanical Bull misfire "Rock City," which the band played second, sounds uncomfortably similar to John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change." It was a jarring transition coming after the sinister chug of the Because the Times Pixies homage "Charmer," which opened the show. The band played that one while obscured behind a transparent curtain — à la Nine Inch Nails — and back-lit to look like giants while smoky stock footage of a horror-movie scream queen flickered vividly on the towering, stage-spanning video screen.
"Charmer" was one of a handful of vintage, pre-"Sex on Fire" Kings cuts sprinkled throughout the set list, with two of the oldest tunes of the lot — "The Bucket" and "Molly's Chambers," aired back to back — garnering some of the biggest crowd responses of the night, perhaps because they were a welcome shot of up-tempo rock in the midst of a mid-show sea of Southern, Strokes-ified, U2-inspired power ballads. Like last time, stacking too many tepid torch songs like "Pyro," "Beautiful War" and "Cold Desert" into a sludge pile of pensive-into-anthemic samey-ness is a signature Achilles heel for the band when it comes to crafting a piss-break-free set list. Seriously, Kings of Leon, cut a couple of those tunes loose and reintroduce terse chestnuts like "Slow Night, So Long" and "King of the Rodeo," because that's the good shit.
Naturally, the band's power ballad par excellence, the still ubiquitous radio stable "Use Somebody," was the inevitable crowd-pleaser of the pack (not to mention the point at which we started smelling wafting weed smoke), but it wasn't the best moment of the night. They closed the main set with the bend-y Youth and Young Manhood centerpiece "Trani." With Caleb punctuating the song's orgasma-climax with high-pitched possessed shrieks, it was a genuinely great performance. Finally. This is the energy level we wished the band would have started the show with, rather than built up to. The Followills rode that wave of excitement and kept on delivering through a laser-laden three-song encore that, as you'd guess, closed with "Sex on Fire," a song even we'll admit we've reluctantly grown to love over the years.
Caleb's banter throughout the show was characteristically brief, and save for an "It's good to be home" nod or two, the band didn't make much of a fuss over this show being a homecoming. Of course, it is only the second gig of the tour, so they haven't been out of town long. But by the looks of things, Kings of Leon — who are commanding up to $72 a pop for tickets (we know, we paid!) — are back on top of the arena-rock world.
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