At first, it was like found art, sound art, three sons and a nephew of a Pentecostal preacher going zero to 60, salvation to sin. In the beginning, Tennessee's shaggy Kings of Leon didn't so much play Southern rock as Southern Gothic — spooky, strangled tales of abstract X-cess in the shadow of the church.
But then came the accolades and the supermodels and opening for U2 and the cover of Rolling Stone. And when the band played a 90-minute gig at the USF Sun Dome on Friday, the theory of rock evolution was confirmed: Over the course of four full albums and six years, the Kings of Leon had changed, big time.
You can already hear grumbles from fans that KOL has sold out, gone corporate. And, indeed, the 2008 album Only by the Night, with sprawling catchy hits Sex on Fire and Use Somebody, is a relatively slick departure from its early work, which was violent, disturbing, muddy, chilling.
But for all the trappings it's acquired — including a famously giant booze budget — KOL is still unlike any young rock band out there, unloading a tasty damnation boogie that spans hellhound blues, country lament and raging rock. And, yes, still delightfully creepy.
Lead singer and heartthrob Caleb Followill enunciates better than he did six years ago, when you could barely decipher his tortured kudzu yelp. (Apparently, dating supermodels is good for your diction.) But the frontman still howls at the moon with all the confidence of a drunkard playing chicken on the train tracks. The ferociously randy Molly's Chambers, from 2003 debut Youth & Young Manhood, proved that no matter how much Caleb digs his liquor, his true vice is the femme fatale: "You'll plead / You'll get down on your knees / For just another taste."
Brothers Jared, on bass, and Nathan, on drums, were equally exceptional live, thumping out near-tribal rhythms that spelled "DANGER" in the clouds floating above the crowd of college kids. If you had the frenzied energy, you could dance to almost every song (the velocity of Taper Jean Girl was irresistible), but hit a puddle and you were a goner.
If you really want to time line the ascension of the Kings, track the guitar work of cousin Matthew Followill, who's gone from restless, backwoods noodler to someone looking to replace the Edge. You can pinpoint KOL's transition from cult fave to major star in the song On Call, from 2007's Because of the Times. Matthew's licks are suddenly hopeful, epic, feel-good. Not dangerous, but dazzling.
After working its hits early, KOL uncorked a lengthy encore of deep cuts and diehard goodies. This included a slow, ominous new beast, haunting like the old stuff, when they were young and scared and dangerous. "Not going to sell my soul to the devil," Caleb warbled, as behind him his family oozed a slow, filthy blues.
And isn't that interesting: Caleb has a model on his arm and money in the bank, but he's still haunted by his Bible-thumpin' daddy.
As long as the power of the preacher is out there, the boys will never get too comfortable. And God bless 'em for that.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.