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Coachella 2011: The passions and problems of the Kings of Leon

April 16, 2011 |  8:55 am

00coachellakings Deep into the Kings of Leon's headline set on Friday, frontman Caleb Followill remembered a Coachella of yore -- and tapped into an insecurity.

"Last time we played, I didn't wear a shirt. I apologize," he said sheepishly. "I've gained a few pounds since then so I'm keeping the shirt on." A girl next to me empathized, saying "aw" and burying her face in her boyfriend's arm.

Photos: Faces of Coachella 2011

Feeling self-conscious about one's physique is an old tradition at Coachella, as reliable as the presence of crushed water bottles on the polo field. Even fancy rock stars aren't immune to it.

But Followill's admission was interesting for another reason: It happened to neatly encapsulate the problems and passions of a band that keeps climbing for superstardom. On one hand, it's a pleasure to see an act go for broke, metaphorically rip off its shirt onstage. But what's even better than the Kings of Leon playing shirtless, figuratively or literally, is when they exercise restraint and corral their Southern rocker lust for good. In other words, keep the chambray on, Mr. Followill.

Images from the 2011 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival

If you were ever in a knife fight with a band like, say, Thin Lizzy, the Kings of Leon are the kind of country brawlers you'd want on your side. The scruffy family band from Tennesse, sons of a preacher man, comes off as more comfortable with testosterone than many others on the Coachella bill, unafraid to flash muscle in their music. They are the only band one can imagine driving up to Indio rocking out to Lynyrd Skynyrd without a trace of irony. I bet they're watching a stoic western right now back at their hotel room.

The Good: In the middle of their set, the Kings delivered a one-two punch of what they do best: touching down into something wistful and real, as nostalgic as rock 'n' roll itself. First, they played "Back Down South," one of the most big-hearted songs on the band's latest, "Come Around Sundown." Next up: "Fans" from their breakthrough "Because of the Times," which rides on the braided beats of the bass and drums, working in near-nuclear fusion. Both songs show off the band's potential for crafting hits with subtle but unforgettable hooks.

The Bad: It's a strange thing when a group's most popular songs now sound like experiments they've outgrown. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I swear I saw resignation on Followill's face when kicking off "Sex on Fire," which might be the worst titular attempt to sum up the throes of passion since Color Me Badd's "I Want To Sex You Up." Sex doesn't have to be on fire or up, OK?

The Ugly: Followill's voice is far from ugly,  but when he lapses into his tomcat caterwauling or his strangely lascivious frog croak, it's a misuse of a fine instrument. As the band advances, it'd be great to see him rely more on the refined elements of his voice, instead of the ham-handed hallmarks of rock singing that feel like vocal costumery more than the genuine article. It's like he's still living by the "fake it till you make it" credo. Newsflash to Kings of Leon: You've made it. You're right where you want to be.


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-- Margaret Wappler 

Photo: The Kings of Leon onstage Friday. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Time