On Saturday night, a slight bummer weather wise given the recent run of summer-like weather we’ve had here in New Jersey, the Wife and I went to see Kings of Leon. We had tried to see them a few years earlier, but the show ended up being cancelled following a bus accident and KOL’s drummer sustaining some broken ribs. No bus crashes or broken ribs this time and as parents of a 2 year old, we would be damned if this show wasn’t going to happen, one way or the other.
I’m not sure what “the other” would be. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.
What it did come to is something I could best describe as a good news/bad news situation.
First, the good news.
The band was great. They sounded amazing and the 24 song set admirably pulled evenly from the band’s seven albums. The set’s second song was “The Bucket” from their second album Aha Shake Heartbreak, an album that came out all the way back in 2004, which would now provide as a gentle reminder that Kings have been around roughly five years longer than it feels like they have been.
I actually saw them back then, twice actually. The first time was in Boston and to this day I remember feeling somewhat unimpressed. Their stage presence was robotic at best, stoic at worst, and for the most part they slammed through each song, doing their best to play near note-for-note versions of the songs as they appeared on the albums. I then saw them maybe a week* or so later back home in Portland and this time, knowing more what to expect, I liked the show more.
* I actually just looked it up and these two shows were a year apart, not a week apart. I’d rather not dwell on this though as what it mostly demonstrates is that I’m getting older and memories, especially those made more than a decade ago are fuzzy at best.
So going into the show this weekend, I was definitely curious to see how much had changed in 12 years. I had seen the band early on, as they were still forming and storming, still somewhat of a southern rock version of the Strokes. In the years since, they became rock stars, one of the biggest rock bands in the world and then unfortunately, victims of their own success, both from a musical standpoint (dealing with the challenges of writing material that could reach the commercial heights of “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”) and a personal stand point (problems with addiction and the like.) I’m different now. Would they be?
And the bad news.
They kind of haven’t changed.
I don’t really think that’s a bad thing. For better or worse, the Kings of Leon are who they are. Stage presence is not their thing and that’s fine. No one is saying it has to be. Also, not every band needs to be Phish, making a song new every time they play it. I think it’s actually a good thing that for the most part, the band hasn’t changed.
bad news good news.
Kings of Leon are essentially the same, seeing them is essentially the same as it was over ten years ago and the bottom line is that that’s not the worst thing in the world. They’re laid back southern dudes. If you’re expecting some U2 type bombast and theatrics, you’ve got it all wrong.
There is some bad news though, and it’s something I’ve been struggling with since it started dawning on me halfway through their set.
Kings of Leon should be bigger, but that idea that they should be is outdated. It’s outdated because ultimately rock ‘n roll should be bigger. Rock ‘n roll is baseball when it comes to hierarchy in their field. Both rock ‘n roll and baseball, American traditions with storied histories, have taken back seats to Hip Hop/R&B and EDM and football and basketball respectively. In some sort of different timeline, an alternate universe where rock music still rules supreme, Kings of Leon would be huge. But those days seem to be behind us and thus, rock music’s problem when it comes to relevance is Kings of Leon’s problem. I think they should be bigger and more popular but with rock music dragging them down, they will only ever be so popular. That’s a bummer.
I think there is some room for distinction here.
Imagine Dragons is technically rock ‘n roll. Same with Twenty One Pilots. Those two bands currently sit atop Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart. Harry Styles, despite his upbringing in Boy Band country, recently dropped his first solo album and that shit is definitely rock ‘n roll, which is a pleasant surprise. His song “Sign of the Times” is currently the highest ranked rock song on Billboard’s Hot 100. But with that one though, I think you could argue it has more to do with his history and accrued, devoted fan base than the genre of music he is playing. That song “Kiwi,” though? That’s a damn good song. Either way, I think we’re about an album or two away from Styles having earned some true rock stripes to put on his jacket.
On the festival scene, rock is present when it comes to headliners, but each one comes with a caveat of sorts. Coachella had Radiohead, but no one would call Radiohead a traditional rock band. Bonnaroo has always been a safe haven for rock bands, especially those willing to take a stab at looking to re-energize their careers or reach out to a more widespread and diverse fan base. This year is no exception, as two bands looking to take some jumper cables to their careers, U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, are headlining along side The Weeknd and Chance the Rapper. In New York, Governors Ball has Phoenix (not a rock band) and Tool (rock, but specifically heavy prog rock) and Panorama has Tame Impala (psychedelic rock) and Nine Inch Nails, which is like industrialized buzz saw, prog rock. Firefly has Chance and The Weeknd playing alongside Twenty One Pilots and Muse, neither of whom are purely rock by any metrics.
Lollapalooza is the exception here. The Killers, Muse and Arcade Fire all sit atop the bill with hometown hero Chance the Rapper. The Killers might be the closest thing we have to pure rock ‘n roll, but I can’t say that with 100% confidence. There’s a cleanliness to them that seems antithetical to the spirit of rock ‘n roll.
Kings of Leon represent a bygone era in a genre that itself has become a bygone era. They are rock ‘n roll minus the need for any qualifiers. They aren’t rock/something/something. They are just rock, southern rock I guess if you want to be specific, but even still, it’s rock ‘n roll. And seeing them on Sunday really felt like watching something you don’t see as much anymore, especially on a big stage in a big venue (there were about 16,000 people there Saturday night.) It was for the most part, four dudes playing instruments and playing songs. No dancing, no turntables. No one rapped. Just songs, one after another with limited talking in between. There was a thank you, some love for the opener, some talk of the future and not much else. There wasn’t even an encore, which still doesn’t feel right to me, but that seems to be their thing. Doesn’t necessarily make it right, but at least they are consistent.
Where do the Kings belong though? It’s easy to say “not now” and move on, but if you think about it, you have to go back a ways to find a time when they make sense and could possibly be as big as it feels like they should be. And I’m talking about Kings of Leon now. When they first came out, they made sense as the southern-friend Strokes. They evolved though, becoming the band that we now know. So where does that band fit? I don’t think it’d be the early 00’s because that was when rock started to slide in terms of relevance and it wouldn’t be the late 90’s because that was when rap/rock took off. The Kings aren’t grunge, so cross off the early 90’s and they aren’t a hair band so cross off the late 80’s. The early 80’s are a possibility, before things got weird, but I think the best era for the Kings of Leon would have been the 1970’s, when rock bands could be rock bands, play mainly bare stages and do so without any excessive bells and whistles.
Unfortunately it’s not the 70’s, though. It’s (checks watch) 2017. That’s the reality facing both Kings of Leon and rock ‘n roll. Barring some sort of drastic change in popular culture, it doesn’t look like we are ever going back to a time when rock music was the alpha and dominated charts and airwaves. New York City, a city some would describe as a “fairly large city,” doesn’t even have a modern rock station. All they have is a classic rock station. If that doesn’t signal a change in the times, I’m not sure what would.
So there was an undercurrent of sadness at Saturday night’s show, a feeling of seeing the end of something in real time. I don’t know what the future holds for Kings of Leon or if there even will be a future, but I sincerely doubt they’ll be able to climb back to the top of the mountain they found themselves on back when they riding high with “Sex on Fire” and “Be Somebody.” To make matters worst, I think their fate is out of their hands and tied to the continuing demise of their chosen genre.
You could argue that Pearl Jam has managed to keep going and Soundgarden, before the sudden passing of Chris Cornell, were still out there plugging away, but were they really? Were they more accurately running out the clock on a good game well played? The main difference is they both had long, Tom Brady-like careers. Kings of Leon could still be considered in their prime, but instead of posting head-turning stats, they are seeing playing fields drying up and fewer games televised outside of local markets.
It’s generally foolish to make assumptions about anything based on a small sample size and I think you could definitely consider 16,000 people in a small town in New Jersey as a small sample size. However, I think it’s also generally foolish to not pay attention to the signs and when it comes to the demise of rock ‘n roll, the signs are all over the place. Whether it’s the size of concert venues, placement on festival bills and sales charts, and visibility at awards shows (see: Awards, Grammys,) it’s becoming clearer by the day that rock has crested, the wave has crashed and the water is being pulled back into the surf.
The beach belongs to other people now and it doesn’t look like they’re bennies, brah. It looks like they’re staying.
You had a good run, rock ‘n roll. Nothing to be ashamed off. But we are operating within the idea of a short shelf life. Nothing lasts forever.
If it did, this would all be about big band jazz instead.