Finally playing on a stage befitting their status as one of the best rock bands of the past 15-20 years, Built to Spill put on an excellent show at Cricket Pavilion Saturday night, and, as a bonus, they even brought along some plucky, young, Southern rock upstarts from Nashville to close out the show. I think they're called Kings of Lynyrd or something.
Okay, so that's not quite how it went down. Kings of Leon were, of course, the big draw Saturday night, and as an unrepentant music snob, there's definitely a part of me that wants to post some snarky review shitting all over the latest "next big thing" band to be shoved down our collective throats. After all, pretty much anyone with ears and even secondhand access to a radio has had more than an assful of the Kings' mega-hit "Use Somebody" by now. But truth be told, Kings of Leon weren't that bad.
Much like the 50 Cent show I attended last month, I wasn't expecting much going into this show. The brothers (and cousin) Followill have become a favorite target of indier-than-thou music elitists recently, in part for good reason. As New Times contributor Dan Gibson pointed out in his preview of this show, the Kings' dashing good looks and dubious beginnings are reason enough for many critics to write them off. Not to mention, it's always frustrating when relatively undeserving bands become hugely successful while truly brilliant bands -- like, say, Built to Spill -- toil for decades in semi-obscurity.
So I might be risking my indie-snob street cred when I say this, but Kings of Leon do not suck. Do they deserve to be as popular as they are? Probably not, but that's not the same as out-and-out sucking. It's like an NBA role player lucking into a max contract. What are they supposed to do -- turn the money down? Kings of Leon certainly don't belong in the same loathsome circle of douche rock occupied by truly godawful bands like O.A.R. or Nickelback. Once you get past the fact that they're way more popular than they should be, it turns out these Tennessee heartthrobs actually have some chops. Put it this way -- if you happened into the Yucca on a random Saturday night and KoL was just another unknown local band onstage, you'd be blown away and trying to figure out why these guys aren't a national success.
Kings of Leon took the stage at just after 9:30 and plowed their way through a set of (presumably) their biggest hits. I wasn't surprised that I recognized only two songs, the aforementioned "Use Somebody" and the slightly less cloying "Sex on Fire." What did surprise me was that it seemed like those were the only two songs most of the audience knew as well. Kings of Leon play the sort of bombastic arena rock that ought to inspire sing-alongs on nearly every song, but only their two most recent hits evoked that kind of response. That's not to say that the crowd wasn't appreciative. There was plenty of cheering and applause between songs, but it didn't seem as if the crowd's knowledge of the Kings' catalog went much deeper than my own. The difference is, I got in for free (one of the few perks of this gig), while most of the people in attendance Saturday night paid upwards of $60 for a ticket. That seems pretty steep for just a couple of songs.
Overall, it was a solid performance by a band that may only now be coming to terms with its newfound fame. Singer-guitarist Caleb Followill kept the between-song banter to a minimum, pausing only briefly about halfway through the set to thank the fans for coming and say that this is one of their favorite places to play.
"We've made a lot of memories in this town -- some of 'em we'd probably rather forget," Followill said, possibly in reference to the band's less-than-stellar performance in Mesa last year. If their performance last night was any indication, Kings of Leon seem to have come a long way from that supposedly disastrous show.
To his credit, Followill also gave a sincere shout-out to Built to Spill, citing them as a favorite band and big influence, which brings us to the true highlight of the night: Built to Spill's opening set. The veteran Idaho indie rockers were in prime form for the lucky few who showed up in time to catch them. The time constraints of an opening set didn't really give them the chance to really cut loose (check out Built to Spill's 20-minute version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" on their Live album to hear what they're truly capable of), but they still managed to touch on nearly every facet of their career, opening with "Oh Yeah" from their latest album and going as far back as "Distopian Dream Girl" from their 1994 sophomore album There's Nothing Wrong With Love. Doug Martsch's wobbly-yet-endearing falsetto and guitar virtuosity resonate as well now as they did 15 years ago.
In a perfect world, Built to Spill would be headlining amphitheaters and Kings of Leon would be the surprisingly talented opening act, but one need look no further than the Gulf of Mexico (or Washington D.C.) to see that we don't live in a perfect world. Kings of Leon might not deserve all the fame they currently enjoy, but they certainly deserve credit for exposing a band like Built to Spill to an audience that otherwise might never have heard of them. For that, I give them major props.
Built to Spill setlist
"Three Years Ago Today"
"Virginia Reel Around the Fountain"
"Distopian Dream Girl"
"Kicked It in the Sun"
"Wherever You Go"
"Carry the Zero"
Last Night: Kings of Leon and Built to Spill at Cricket Pavilion
Better Than: KoL's last show here, apparently
Personal Bias: I'm a pretty big Built to Spill fan, if you hadn't already noticed
Random Detail: I'm also a big fan of irony, so I thought the faux-DIY, electrical tape "KoL" logo on Nathan Followill's bass drum was an especially clever touch.
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Further Listening: Built to Spill's There Is No Enemy was one of my favorite albums of 2009, but do yourself a favor and hunt down copies of Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret. You won't regret it.
One More Thing: At first, I thought it was kind of lame of Kings of Leon to put off "Use Somebody" until the inevitable encore, but judging by the way people starting heading for the exits en masse during the band's final song, they still might have played it too early.