13 July 2017 (gig)
19 July 2017
Kings of Leon have traded a sense of danger for stadium adoration, but who cares?
Not the 55,000 cider and IPA-addled crowd whose lungs are bursting, as they bellow the choruses to ‘Sex On Fire’, ‘Use Somebody’ and set closer ‘Waste A Moment’, in the final third of their headline slot at the British Summer Time festival.
There's probably no better band for a balmy summer’s evening gig at Hyde Park. Even the blood-red sky overhead, as the sun sets on another scorching day in the capital, could be hewn from an American southern state.
But there's undeniably a magic that has all but vanished from Kings of Leon’s on stage chemistry; an energy, a danger, an unpredictability that made them such a vital band in their blistering breakthrough years. When once they were essential, now they’re efficient; treading out arena anthems and ballads that broadly don't hit the sonic heights, or the bravely honest musings on fans and fame of their first three albums.
Sure, they can kick it live better than most. Caleb Followill’s voice is often majestic and utterly singular, the riffs are heavy but not bloated, lead guitarist Matthew Followill grinds the solo to the slutty ‘Closer’ with his teeth, and their new songs ‘Find Me’ and ‘Reverend’ get the reception that they must have hoped for.
But how much are they getting out of being in Kings of Leon in 2017? Caleb sounds genuine when he refers to the band’s early fanbase originating in the UK, but sometimes the four of them onstage don't appear to be cherishing the moment as much as those at the front baying for ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’.
The fans are though treated to ‘Milk’, ‘The Bucket’ and other noughties classics which have now transcended the band’s ownership – these songs are so good they now pretty much belong to the public. With their back catalogue, including a debut album in which every single song was a sure-as-hell chart hit, Kings of Leon could nonchalantly blast out a frenetic, adrenalin-fuelled 90-minute gig that would be among the best you've ever seen. But in the second half, the set hardly breaches mid pace.
‘Slow Night, So Long’ and ‘Fans’ are aired among a 27-song set, but it feels there's at least another two gears in the Followills which go unused. Maybe they're proving a point in how far they've come in their craft of writing different types of song, and the slower tracks do nevertheless, sound pristine and perfect.
Their craft was also evident in building up to the crescendo of ‘Sex On Fire’; few songs in any live arena by any band, new or old, get a similar or better reaction.
But the vast majority of the 55,000 traipsing out of Hyde park - some still yelling the “oh oh ohs” of ‘Use Somebody’ - were beaming after what they felt was just a great mainstream rock gig. For Kings of Leon, that's probably the game, and enough for now.
Should the Pixies have headlined, instead of supporting Kings of Leon?
No, not with the mainstream appeal of this festival. This is not a value judgement, but the acts typically booked for this annual mid-summer shindig are populist. This is not necessarily a gig for the pioneers, moreover past and present masters of rock and pop (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Killers and Justin Bieber all headlined this year).
In such mainstream company the Pixies do, however, demonstrate how much they know their way around a nuanced pop hook, having written some of the very best in the past three decades. They also adopt the same ethos as Noel Gallagher – play the hits and fuck off – and in their early evening slot they do just as much with panache.
So, in the humidity of the heatwave’s dying embers, we get ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Crackity Jones’, ‘Debaser’ and a magnificent ‘Here Comes Your Man’.
Frank Black is neither hanging about nor holding back; he barely breathes in between songs and launches from one classic to the next before any applause begins to dissipate. That creates an energy that King of Leon couldn’t quite muster and an affinity with a jubilant audience basking in the tunes that soundtracked misspent youth.
It’s full-throttle and Joey Santiago’s guitar still sounds at times like it’s being played through a jet engine instead of an amp – and that’s a good thing. A few newer tracks don’t hit the mark with a crowd clearly much younger than the Pixies would normally play to, but the early evening slot allows the younguns to hear, to listen, to lyrics that make Black Francis such an outlier.
If one element stood out above anything, then ‘Where Is My Mind?’ is the most apt descriptor of the modern western world’s collective political psyche – and it still sounds fucking ace.
The British Summer Time festival isn’t just about headline acts. Highly Suspect, from Massachusetts and Colorado’s Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats brought a fair dose of spirit and vitality to a crowd with varying knowledge of their songs.
LA-based Local Natives, however, were the highlight of the afternoon slots. When they first emerged five years ago some thought they could be the new Arcade Fire – and they’re certainly tight enough as a band to fill the big arenas. Set closer 'Sun Hands' builds from unassuming folk guitars to a fitting climax. They’re already writing the songs that could someday see them headline.
Photo credit: Spencer McCrory