ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey — Past the rows of neon slot machines, beyond the over-priced fusion eateries and light years away from the weekenders and senior citizens looking for their latest lucky break, Kings of Leon delivered a rock show. Atlantic City seems like an inappropriate place for America’s current biggest and most workmanlike rock band. Their steady rise — from indie darlings to radio stalwarts over the course of five albums and seemingly non-stop touring — doesn’t gel with the get-rich-quick glamour of the gaming tables of the Borgata.
Still, that didn’t stop KOL from launching their latest summer tour from the Event Center located inside that very casino. In a ballroom more fit to host Fredo Corleone’s birthday party than a loud, sweaty rock show, the quarted overcame the artificial nature of their surroundings to deliver what has become the definitive rock show of the current era.
In theory, Kings of Leon really shouldn’t work. They’re four dudes from Tennessee who have always had a greater following in Europe and whose sound is constantly morphing from album to album. Along the way, they’ve augmented their Southern-kissed approach to indie rock with healthy doses of dirty-water blues, U2-style stadium fireworks, old-school Aerosmith guitar solos and bits of funk, hardcore and scuzzy ’60s garage rock. Their palette seems almost too broad.
And yet they manage to impress just about everybody. The cross-section of the 2,500 or so people jammed into a ballroom upstairs at the Borgata didn’t have very much in common (in one corner, beer-chugging MMA fans; over there were the bespectacled indie types; oh look, there’s a bunch of dads), save for one thing: They all went absolutely ape every time Kings of Leon hit one of their now-signature “whoa-oohs” during any number of massive sing-alongs.
In fact, the only time the crowd didn’t hang on every word was when the group unveiled a handful of new tunes, each of which carried its own personality. The best was a sort of Zeppelin-flavored blues romp that imported a bit of Loretta Lynn for good measure. It struck just the right balance between melt-your-face rocking and twang-drenched beauty, and it’s going to be a huge hit. Even frontman Caleb Followill seemed to acknowledge the lightning they had bottled.
“You don’t know these songs,” he warned before launching into the new material. “But one day you will, and you can say you were the first people to ever hear them.”
Armed with little more than a single video screen behind them, Kings of Leon sounded like a band in mid-stride, not a group just starting back up again. “We haven’t played in a while, so we’re a little nervous,” Caleb announced to the crowd. Maybe nerves work for them, as the 90-minute set they laid out — relying heavily on the smash album Only by the Night — was sharp and on point. The band hit their biggest singles hardest and with a laser-like precision: “Sex on Fire” was a soaring four minutes of hedonism, while “The Bucket” had a spacious beauty that is somewhat lost in the recorded version. Most impressive was “Molly’s Chambers,” which has morphed into a metallic grind that closely resembles Nirvana’s “Breed” (and that’s a compliment).
As the group ended their encore with “Use Somebody,” the entire crowd was nearing a lighter-waving, body-swaying moment of transcendence, and by the time Kings of Leon hit the final notes, it seemed like most of the revelers had arrived. Then they were quickly shuffled out the door and back into the slot-machine-fueled wonderland below, where it’s doubtful anybody was able to capture the same sort of high.