Kings Of Leon, Down From The Mountains

Family band the Kings of Leon, who performed with garage-rock swagger at the 9:30 club on Saturday.
Family band the Kings of Leon, who performed with garage-rock swagger at the 9:30 club on Saturday. (Jo Mccaughy)
By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005

After a childhood spent traveling the path to salvation with their evangelist father, the three Followill brothers (plus a cousin) in the rock band Kings of Leon hit their late teens, opted for fun over fundamentalism and took a turn down Damnation Lane. Sex, drugs, etc., have proved a profitable detour for these fallen Tennessee angels, who fine-tuned their original brand of hellbilly boogie at a sold-out 9:30 club Saturday in preparation for their upcoming gig as U2's opening act.

The Kings of Leon, ranging in age from 18 to 25 and all in need of a sandwich, some sun and a trip to the Hair Cuttery, are an odd story and an even odder band. Although U2's Bono, a plethora of music snobs and a good chunk of the U.K. would surely disagree, the shaggy group (named after their father and grandfather) aren't the easiest dudes to fall in love with.

Sure, their 2003 debut, "Youth & Young Manhood," went multiplatinum across the pond. The follow-up, "Aha Shake Heartbreak," was released to much fanfare last week. And the gig with U2 certainly won't hurt.

Nonetheless, the Kings have yet to make a major splash in the United States. There are understandable reasons for that. First of all, twang-rich singer Caleb Followill's garbled delivery--especially on such new tunes as the arty, obtuse ballad "Milk"--is often reminiscent of Jodie Foster in "Nell." Oh, you remember that cinematic squirmfest from 1994, don't you? Foster played an orphaned mountain woman who created her own language: "Chicka, chicka chickabee" and so on and on with the backwater gibberish. To Caleb, who likes to coo and yodel over his family's swaggering arrangements, Nell probably made perfect sense. This is not a good thing. Their albums take some getting used to.

Also, perhaps because the Kings were for so long sheltered from popular music, they often sound on record as if they're still figuring out what rock music is supposed to sound like. Yes, this makes them a fine sociological experiment, but many of their songs feature clunky rhythms and jarring tempo changes that don't always mesh. And as for lyrics, well, 50 Cent is more subtle. The typical Kings tune is a violent coming-out party of cocaine, loose women and gunplay--church-ditching kids in a carnal candy store who know the good Lord gonna get 'em. It can get almighty silly.

But now let's get to the good stuff. The Followills have said that if "Manhood" was an all-night party, then "Heartbreak" is all about the next-day hangover. Indeed, their sophomore effort deals with conquests and consequences, especially on the sublime "Soft." As heard on the album, "Soft"--built on vaguely Latin rhythms à la Talking Heads and a furious Pixies-style break--is a stuttering, stop-and-start song about manly frustrations. It's good--but it could be better.

Live, it was truly great. In performance on Saturday night, "Soft" was as blistering and loud as they come, a celebratory shotgun blast of sexual dysfunction that had the guy-strong crowd singing along, "I'm passed out in your garden!" Hallelujah and pass the Viagra!

That's why the Kings of Leon just might conquer America after all. When playing live, the band is deliciously unrepentant, completely unrestrained, with God left off the guest list and the Devil dancing all night. During the hour set, the quirky nuances and bouts of uncertainty found on the band's albums were replaced with jackhammer power chords and garage-rock swagger; if there was once a message, now there was only mayhem. Let there be rock.

Out of the studio and in front of a crowd, Matthew Followill, cousin and lead guitarist, is a bluesy metalhead at heart, and he could make his one guitar sound like a drunken bar fight of thousands. Drummer Nathan and bassist Jared formed a frantic, double-timing rhythm section. If the Kings ever want to cover that rambunctious surf classic "Wipeout"--or at least schedule time for a '70s-style drum solo--they certainly have the young guns to pull it off. And as for Caleb: "I'm kind of losing my voice tonight, but I'm doing my best," said the tall, thin frontman, who was forced to ditch the loopy Nell impression and rely on ragged, punk-style howls instead, a much better fit with his family band's garage-rock approach.

Such glorious, tinnitus-inducing new jams as "King of the Rodeo" and "Slow Night, So Long"--sounding like Dixiefied Iggy Pop or perhaps Tom Petty fronting an AC/DC cover band--had the jampacked crowd pumping their fists. And the Kings achieved full revival mania with an encore version of band anthem "Holy Roller Novocaine," a sinister gallop from "Manhood" about a preacher's son seducing a groupie and daring God to stop him. Ooh, it's a sinner's swing for sure, but going to Hell has never sounded like so much fun.

The Followills' preaching papa may not approve of his kin's wicked ways, but a part of him has to be proud. After all, if there were any doubters at the start of the show, the Kings of Leon made sure only true believers left the building--sweaty, smiling and far too tired to go to church the next morning.

Family band the Kings of Leon, who performed with garage-rock swagger at the 9:30 club on Saturday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company