There was a large eyeball suspended at the rear of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' stage setup Friday night, a fitting prop for a band that prides itself on spectacle. The band's Austin City Limits show was the second for which they stepped in as a replacement for the ailing Beastie Boys (the first was Lollapalooza), and if some of their typical razor sharpness had been blunted from all the subbing, that just meant that they were merely the fourth best live band around.
In fact, the greatest casualty of the YYYs' rigorous schedule is O's voice. Normally a shrill and vibrant shriek, on Friday it was shocking in its bluntness — more grunt than tone. But O used the gruffness to her advantage, scuffing up some of the prettier numbers from the group's largely electronic It's Blitz! to lend them a kind of violent power. "Honeybear" felt fierce and edgy, Nick Zinner's guitar grimy, practically oozing sound. "Gold Lion" has steadily grown into a stomping monster of a song, and Karen threw herself into it, swooping across the stage with grand, exaggerated gestures. The band excels at both energy and economy — their songs are built on just a handful of notes, but they're delivered with maximum charisma.
If there was any drawback to the group's performance it was the sound: mixed oddly and a shade quieter than it should have been, it rendered much of the set peculiarly low-wattage. Which was more of a problem for Kings of Leon, who rely on volume to help convey their music's remarkable stridency. The Kings pull of an interesting trick — most of their newer material is quiet and coiled, but they somehow manage to make them sound enormous. The group comes off two parts Joe Cocker to one part U2, the right combination of body-heaving soul and bright-eyed conviction. On Friday, Caleb Followill's silvery guitars — when they could be heard — arced up toward the night sky. And the band was aided by a special guest: one Mr. Eddie Vedder, from Day Three headliners Pearl Jam, hopped onstage to sing and play tambourine on "Slow Night, So Long." The guest spot wasn't preplanned — the Kings and Vedder made the call to collaborate in a spontaneous chat just before set time.
"Notion" was a taut, buzzing number, Followill's gruff tenor scraping against the tiny riffs. For someone who was clearly at a career peak, Followill was in a nostalgic mood. "I was looking at some pictures of us from the first time we played Austin City Limits," he said near the end of their set, "we were all young and scared. And here we are. No matter what kind of shit people talk about Kings of Leon, I'm very fucking proud of where we are. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we're not going anywhere. So if you don't like us, you'd better learn to love us."
And then, as if to further convince the skeptics, the group launched into "Manhattan," which finds Followill singing "We're gonna fuel the fire, gonna stoke it up." It was bravado, to be sure, but given the crowd singing right along with him, it was hardly misplaced.