It’s been three years since Kings of Leon last played in Chicago. Back in 2011, their gig at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater was nixed, along with the rest of the Come Around Sundown summer tour, due to lead singer Caleb Followill’s health and drinking problems (as well as the general malaise and tension that plagued the rest of the band). Obviously, it wasn’t an especially good year for the brothers Followill— Nathan, Caleb, and Jared — or their cousin Matthew. Critical reception for Come Around Sundown, their 2010 follow-up to 2008’s major breakthrough Only By The Night, was mixed at best and a Twitter controversy in January involving drummer Nathan and Glee creator Ryan Murphy made both parties involved look bad. To make matters worse, a disastrous Dallas show had to be cut short after Caleb left the stage to “vomit and drink a beer” only to never return.
Now, with Mechanical Bull receiving applause and Caleb sober nine months and counting, the band is back and seem as clear, content, and focused as ever. Though the group has played dozens and dozens of shows since that beer-soaked Dallas night without incident, it’s as if they’re treating every gig as a statement that the Kings of Leon are here to stay as a worthwhile rock band. Tonight, gone were the intricate light shows of their arena tours; instead, the band simply set up their instruments with no backdrop or special effects adding to their performance—it was a straight-up rock and roll show with no pretense.
Packed into the sold-out-within-minutes House of Blues, I began to wonder why a band with such a household name like Kings of Leon would choose to play here. After all, their 2010 gig in Tinley Park was nearly sold out but that venue had a capacity of over 12,000 while the House of Blues, on the other hand, can only hold about 1,300. This disparity was emphasized by the dozen or so people on Craigslist offering to pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket just hours before the show. It’d be an understatement to say that the relatively small House of Blues was packed—when the show started there was little room to move around and dance. It was as if “the big thing” in rock music wanted to return to their days of almost-perpetually being “the next big thing”—playing a smallish club to hundreds of their most zealous fans.
Opener The Weeks came on looking like the Kings of Leon of yesteryear, with incredibly long hair, tight shirts, and funny hats donned by two-thirds of the band. Also, their guitarist wore sunglasses in the dark club, obviously not for practical purposes but to look like the most rock and roll dude present. (Sound familiar?) On the surface, they’re the perfect openers for the rockers—after all, the Followills liked the band enough to sign them to their record label, Serpents and Snakes Records, in 2012. And like Kings, The Weeks hail from the South, and are composed of brothers, Cyle and Cain Barnes. Yet despite these parallels, much of The Weeks’ material sounds more radio-friendly than the earliest Followill fare. “Brother In The Night”, their single off their latest LP, Dear Bo Jackson, echoes Dr. Dog with its laid back guitars and booming choruses full of oohs and ahhs. While closer “Buttons”, a track from five years ago that’s arguably their first “hit”, found friends in the audience who even knew the words.
When Kings of Leon took the stage, there was no elaborate intro announcing them to perform—the lights went off and the band dove into “Family Tree”, one of Mechanical Bull’s more groovin’ tracks. What followed was a dance between standout tracks from Aha Shake Heartbreak, to the more accessible songs off Only By The Night. Highlights included an early, bouncy appearance of “Taper Jean Girl”, the galloping drums and heavy guitars of “Four Kicks”, the always-reliable “The Bucket”, and the gentle acoustics of “Back Down South” — one of the closest things they have to an alt-country song. To close out the pre-encore portion of their set, the Followill clan dabbled with a trio of their slower numbers, the metaphor-stuffed ballad “Beautiful War”, followed by Only By The Night closer “Cold Desert”, and FM juggernaut single “Use Somebody”, the latter of which prompted a loud sing-along from the audience.
Conspicuously absent from the setlist were songs from the band’s 2003 debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, especially par-for-the-course “Molly’s Chambers”, and anything off 2007’s Because Of The Times, one of their strongest releases to date. Despite these misses — admittedly, it would have been great to hear full-throttle rocker “Black Thumbnail”, heartwarming opener “Knocked Up”, or personal favorite “Fans” — the Kings entertained the diehards with enough throwbacks to their Aha days and material off Mechanical Bull crackled with electricity, specifically “Supersoaker” and “Temple”.
Following crowd favorite and encore closer “Sex On Fire”, a song that’s received so much airplay it’s nearly impossible to plead ignorance on its lyrics, the band bowed, threw their guitar picks and drumsticks into the audience, and left the stage. “We fight like brothers, then we hug and make up like brothers. It’s just how it goes,” Caleb noted in a recent interview. Last night, we caught them at the end of that torturous familial cycle… and it ruled.
Photography by Gretchen Bachrodt.
Taper Jean Girl
Back Down South
Sex On Fire