Instead of a temperate evening of Southern rock, Friday night at Governors Ball was a wash – quite literally. Torrential rain and ferocious winds marred the opening day of the newly expanded three-day festival, held at Randalls Island park in New York (a short ferry ride from Manhattan), forcing organizers to cancel headliners Kings of Leon seconds before their start time. (Pretty Lights also got axed.)
The unceremonious shuttering of the main stage did not surprise attendees – who were, to the one, shivering in soaked clothes and ankle-deep in viscous mud (and, in several cases, searching for their orphaned shoes in the murky six inches of water and earth that covered the festival grounds) – but it was a bonus disappointment to the already-dispirited rock fans in attendance. The hasty concessions to Mother Nature and poor directions from the staff created a melee at the exits, too. Cars were trapped in mud, ferries were backlogged for hours and in some cases, including that of this Rolling Stone reporter, the hour and a half intended to be spent hearing “Sex on Fire” and various iterations thereof was used to march grimly across the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Harlem, minds drawing inhospitable comparisons to the mass exodus scene in Cloverfield.
However, Kings of Leon would not be so easily deterred from their first New York show in three years; festival organizers worked swiftly and rescheduled the band to Saturday evening, slipping them into the mainstage at 6:45 p.m. before headliners Guns N’ Roses and offering Friday ticketholders free admission to the festival that day. It felt like an unprecedented move from all parties, including Kings of Leon; since the release of their 2008 breakthrough record, Only By the Night, they have commanded far too much mainstream popularity to accept any festival spot but the bombastic close. They make no bones about it, too, as drummer Nathan Followill acknowledged when he tweeted on Saturday morning, “First time in a long time that I’ll see the sunshine while I’m playing.”
With the sun still shining from their first note to last, Kings of Leon delivered a hefty 75-minute set at Governors Ball, one that felt scrambled and seat-of-pants at times from such a commercially mammoth group. Opening sharply with “Radioactive” (the lead single from 2010’s Come Around Sundown), the group was focused and pristine, singer Caleb Followill’s earthy, blues-inflected growl spreading sonorously across the field; his spot-on vocals remain the band’s greatest live strength. Apologizing for being “21 hours late,” he gave little focus to stage banter and led the group on an agile sprint through their entire catalog; they pushed swiftly through a barrage of uptempo older material, from the frothing and bass-heavy “Taper Jean Girl” (from 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak), to the more succinct and poppish “My Party” and “Fans” (from 2007’s Because of the Times) and the honky-tonk-derived “Molly’s Chambers” (from their 2003 debut, Youth and Young Manhood), the latter sanded at the corners to more stadium-friendly rock anthemics. The group’s chrysalis is in Southern rock, but their broad fare has lost the accent by now.
Kings of Leon are not a band who openly delight in their jobs – singer Caleb furrows his brow and wails with strict precision, while bassist Jared Followill shifts and emotes detachedly like the All Saints model he is clearly destined to become – but their rigidity is not a problem until it accentuates a discordance in their sound. Unfortunately, at Governors Ball, exactly this occurred; the sound mixing skewed dramatically bottom-heavy, giving each of drummer Nathan Followill’s bass drum stabs a distorted, painfully accentuated buzz. Followill seemed all too aware of it, and his kicks strayed into both sped-up and lethargic overcompensation, creating a muddy and occasionally confused beat (especially noticeable near the stage). Odd video projections added to the unease; as the band hastened to explain, much of their stage gear was already packed and en route to London, even if the musicians were not. Still, this only partially explains the hazy, slow-motion, black-and-white video of the band’s individual faces superimposed over lonely roads and stark guitars like a preemptive in memoriam video for musicians who were not yet deceased, just out of their element. This imagery ran around the time of “Supersoaker,” a track from their forthcoming sixth studio album, Mechanical Bull, which had a tougher edge than past fare with a frenetic pace and chopped vocals that segued into sinewy, soulful harmonies.
By the gentler, more restrained spin through “The Bucket” (from Aha Shake), the problem was solved and the rhythm was fluid; this segued into a terrifically energetic trio of Only by the Night fan favorites – “Use Somebody,” “Closer,” and “Sex on Fire” – and choral crowd singalongs of giddy abandon throughout each, mud flinging from flailing arms. It was just in time for the close – “Black Thumbnail,” from Times – and a cathartic payoff well earned. After a disappointing night, and a shaky set evolution, this was truly when the storm passed for Kings of Leon’s fans.