From the beginning, the Killers have struggled to prove their mettle as a live rock band. Historically, most of the trouble has had to do with frontman Brandon Flowers, a sweet faced small-town boy whose obvious discomfort onstage is wildly incongruous with his musical bravado. Awkward, robotic and contrived, Flowers’ stage presence has done the addictive, arch synth rock he creates a tragic disservice.
Despite all this, the Killers have produced a cache of video and radio hits that has earned them a huge, diverse audience. Nowhere was this broad spectrum of fans more evident than at the band’s Webster Hall gig Friday night, where the crowd was a veritable cross-section of the city itself: stylish guys in skinny jeans and pompadours, twentysomething girls in baby-doll dresses, New Jersey housewives sporting diamond sparklers on their fingers and an astounding number of middle-aged couples eager to show off their hipster savvy by singing along (loudly) to the hits.
From the moment the Killers took the stage, their excitement at performing new material after two years of playing recycled tunes was palpable, and the good vibes were contagious. This is a band that has worn its musical influences on its sleeve since day one: The first album, Hot Fuss, borrowed heavily from the Cure and Talking Heads, and the new disc rather shamelessly borrows from Queen, Springsteen and Meat Loaf. But in reinventing themselves as an arena rock band, the Killers seem to have found their groove. Opening with two songs from the new album, the “Born To Run”-inspired title track, “Sam’s Town,” and the operatic single “When You Were Young,” the band sounded loose and buoyant, and for the first time, Flowers acted the charismatic frontman, flailing around unself-consciously, clutching his mike and emoting with heartfelt conviction and not a little humor.
Once the group relaxed into the well-worn tunes of their first album, though, things started to unravel. Moldy oldies like “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside” worked like a Pavlovian bell on Flowers — at the mere sound of the swelling keyboard intros, he reverted back into the unsure, unwieldy frontman of days gone by.
Thankfully, Flowers and Co. redeemed themselves in the end, injecting the nouveau spiritual “All These Things That I’ve Done” with the pomposity it deserved. In particular, the song exposed the sonic bridge between the Killers’ previous incarnation as electro-pop outfit and their current — and largely criticized — transformation into a stadium rock band. Heard in the context of the earlier songs, the new tunes sound like the obvious next step in the band’s musical evolution. If these Vegas boys can continue to fuse the strut and bombast of this phase with equally flamboyant live shows, they may have a fighting chance after all.