A friend tells a story of volunteering at a small club in Athens, Ga., in the early days of Kings of Leon, before they were even stars in the U.K., and the band rolled up in their van the afternoon before a show. She went out to ask if there was anything they needed, and one of the boys grabbed a bag of dirty laundry, tossed it at her feet, and walked off into the club without a word. Yes, the Followill clan were convinced they were destined to be hotshit rock royalty before anybody else gave a hoot.
Well, after Friday night’s coronation-style performance at Bonnaroo’s monolithic What stage, the Tennessee native sons probably could’ve asked any of the estimated 70,000 people in attendance to wash their dirty undies and they would’ve had plenty of takers (especially the screeching mobs of teenage girls sporting glowsticks around every available appendage).
This was a colossal spectacle-the band entered to thunderous choral music while plumes of black smoke emanated from all over the venue, backed by a dazzling, skyscraper-size matrix of lights. It was both absurd and vaguely scary and wholly appropriate in its unironic hugeness.
As with certain other classic alternative-rock bands of the past decades-U2, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins-the Kings’ entire original point was to take the sound of a creative but commercially stunted scene (in this case, the early 2000s new wave of garage rock) and blow it up to an undeniable scale with their own (southern rock) veneer.
It took three albums, persistent arrogance, and a lot music-industry support to eventually push them to a level where they could headline Bonnaroo in a time slot when absolutely no other bands were scheduled. The Kings, who started at Bonnaroo in a small tent in 2004, now rule the compound. Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder may be playing today, but this is the Kings’ castle.
Musically, the band was precise and powerful, if not intense; maybe even they were somewhat awed by the situation (especially since they live “just down the road,” as frontman Caleb Followill said at one point).
They worked through songs from their entire catalogue, including rarely-played first-album track “Trani,” with its evocations of transvestite hookers at the Greyhound Station and bumps of coke. Much more surprising was a immaculately faithful cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind.”
But the real highlight was a clutch of new, as-yet-untitled songs that boasted a rootsier, possibly even more ambitious aesthetic-one had a vaguely doo-wop vocal and a stomping Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo; another recalled a ’70s country-rock road song that sounded like it could’ve been written for Trace Adkins or Dierks Bentley. As producer Angelo Petraglia joined the crew to strum acoustic guitar, Caleb declared firmly, “I’m going back down South.” On this night, it was finally as a conquering hero.