Live Review:Kings Of Leon

There's no big circus, but a razor-sharp focus pushes the Followills to the peak of their powers. MEN Arena, Manchester, Monday June 22

It’s a cliché to talk about bands making arena gigs seem intimate and certainly you’d be hard-pressed to convince the people 100ft up at the back in the Manchester MEN that this was At Home With The Followills. But as soon as Kings Of Leon slink onto their stripped-back stage, the screams and applause come in wave after wave so they can’t start playing for five minutes. If this isn’t intimacy, then it certainly feels very warm. What is it about Kings Of Leon that has completely won over the UK? It surely can’t just be tight trousers.

Beginning with a scowling ‘Be Somebody’ and a fearsome ‘Crawl’, the atmosphere is very intense, very focused. There’s no U2-style pomp and circumstance here; no explosions, no flashy lighting and just a few subtle video screens. Given that they aren’t fans of overt showmanship – Caleb taking out his hanky to mop his brow before ‘California waiting’ is as dramatic as it gets – you’d expect them to struggle in such surroundings. That they pull it off without having to run around in leotards like Van Halen is testament to the power of the songs and the integrity of their approach. They’re not pissing about, these boys – they’re dead serious, and us drunk English berks like this in our Big American Rock Bands, which Kings really are now.

Ten minutes in, and ‘Molly’s Chamber’ then ‘Red Morning Light’ show us how they’ve grown, these first album songs slowed down, opened out, given space for the audience to fill. Still, the general pace, reflecting the no-fuss approach, is brisk, as they get through 24 songs in an hour and a half, with between-song chat reduced to Caleb’s genuinely amazed exclamations of, “You guys are really crazy”. This lack of showmanship may be a valid criticism at this stage, yet it’s also key to why people love this band. The straining intensity of Caleb’s face up on the screen is emblematic of their lack of pretension.

And that bounty of beards, people love that too. They look great: Caleb the ranch-hand hunk, Nathan the incredible hulk, Jared the leather-clad juvenile delinquent and Matthew the Barney Rubble lookalike. Matthew’s a genuine guitar hero now, weaving the spell of ‘Closer’ one minute, then playing with his teeth on ‘Four Kicks’ the next. OK, so there is some showmanship and, with him on fire, ‘The Bucket’, ‘My Party’ and ‘Notion’ are breathlessly good. As for ‘Sex On Fire’, well, even this maddest of Manchester crowds seem like they’ve heard it just 181 too many times. As ‘Use Somebody’ closes the main set, and every word is screamed back at them, it’s seems curious that Kings Of Leon have kept rising while their one-time benefactors The Strokes fell away. Again there’s that word: focus. While The Strokes slumped towards mediocrity and then inactivity, Kings have worked relentlessly to improve and get material out there. There’s real drive behind those icy blue eyes of Caleb’s, something Swiss boarding schools can’t teach.

Anyway, for the encore, they do a brilliant ‘Slow Night, So Long’, that vain young rock star sneer at groupies, then there’s the reflective maturity of ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Manhattan’, before a searing ‘Black Thumbnail’ shows the fury still burning inside. Having put their lives into their brutally honest music, these songs tell how the boys became men, and it’s made them a captivating band. After Reading and Leeds they’ll be going away to recover from ‘Only By The Night’ fever. But you can’t imagine they’ll be away too long – they need this.

Martin Robinson