Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

Kings of Leon: Fighting for the Right to Rule Arenas

The Followill clan stake their claim as new arena-rock champs

I've seen Kings of Leon play two New York-area arenas, the Izod Center in September of 2009 and Madison Square Garden this past November 16. Both times they followed song bands too broadly embracing and just plain good to be dwarfed by the space: Glasgow's wall-of-tune Glasvegas and Atlanta's emotive Manchester Orchestra. Both times the three Followill brothers and their Followill cousin took the stage after an interval more professional than their rowdy backstory would suggest--and promptly showed their fans what it means to fill an arena.

Fact is, only two true arena-rock bands have emerged in this century, and the other one, Linkin Park, is over. So the arena is Kings of Leon's domain, and unless the Arcade Fire admit their darkest desires, Kings could rule it unchallenged for many years. Yet watch them bring home 22 guitar-rock songs in just under two hours and you realize that they know damn well arena-rock is a dinosaur. So naturally they break several arena-rock rules as well as some related ones. Graduates of Bonnaroo who don't jam and sons of the South who don't boogie, they're also habitues of hockey rinks who don't rave up--not even when they sneak a half-lit second guitarist/keyboard player stage right.

A good thing, because guitarist Matthew Followill ain't exactly Dickey Betts up there--ain't exactly Donnie Van Zant, even. Kings of Leon's most accomplished musician by far is drummer Nathan Followill, who improved mightily after hiring a personal trainer. The drummer's job is to keep things moving, and that's what Kings of Leon do. They don't pose or strut around or rev up the crowd. After a smelly flash-pot intro, they don't roll out any effects either, although they've added JumboTron--in cinema-verite black and white, compelling anyone craving color to peer at the stage itself. Aggressively, confidently, masterfully, they serve up their book, song after song after sub-five-minute song.

Of course, however rough-hewn their haircuts, Kings of Leon are almost as good-looking as the models they date. And of course, that backstory won't quit. Hard-drinking sons of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher who ditched their mama when they were teens, their mythos has reach. It broke them in England before they hit here, and both times I've seen them frontman Caleb has bragged about how drunk he was getting. But though at Izod hot-headed Nathan was throwing stuff at bassist Jared before they left the stage, at the Garden you had to be impressed by how well the boys were holding their theoretical liquor. They had 22 songs to get through before the union shut them down, and nothing was going to stop them.

Every one of those songs roused their faithful, including six from the new Come Around Sundown. A few of the new ones--including the lead "The End" and, I predict, the love ballad "The Face," which they didn't play--will evolve into show-stoppers soon enough. But for now they climax and encore with seven selections from their 2006 and 2008 breakthroughs, Because of the Times and Only by the Night. Hookwise, these are for rousing the faithless--the middle five of "Manhattan" to "Knocked Up" to "Use Somebody" and then "Closer" to "Be Somebody" to "Sex on Fire" to "Black Thumbnail" are as good as they get. But here's the thing.

These are rowdies, right? Big drinkers. So where exactly are their fight-for-your-right-to-party anthems? Granted, "Sex on Fire" is about what it says it's about. But only rarely are the century's premier arena-rockers fighting for their right to party. They're fighting for their right to fight--only hip-hoppers brawl more, is there so much brawling, only there people die--and to get out of town. In the warmly received "Manhattan" they "dance all night and dance all day" only then they "forever roam."

MSN Music, November 22, 2010