For a while now, the Killers have openly campaigned to be America’s band — whether America realizes it or not. Ever since 2006’s sepia-tinged Sam’s Town, Brandon Flowers and Co. have championed the same communal convictions Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger sang about decades earlier; a beatification of blue-collar ethics and the liberation of limited opportunities. Their highways are always dusty, their screen doors eternally tattered — and even when they’ve veered from that vision of America, they didn’t stray far: There’s a reason “A Dustland Fairytale” is on Day & Age, after all.
Those anachronistic urges have predictably led to a dip in sales for the Las Vegas quartet, though they’re also led to a development few could have seen coming during their synth-heavy Hot Fuss era: The Killers have become a formidable live act, a band that goes for broke at every single opportunity and succeeds more often than not.
The latest example was Saturday night’s headlining set at the NCAA March Madness Music Festival in Dallas, a big, bombastic rock show heavy on dramatics and a desire to change lives (even if they were just performing in between Final Four games). Their early hits — “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me” — were stripped of any and all Anglo leanings, replaced with fist-pumping solos from Dave Keuning and Ronnie Vannucci’s heavy-booted backbeat, and newer songs like “Runaways” and “The Way It Was” conjured up widescreen dreams of a time long ago, like the arena-rock heyday of the 1970s.
“Shot at the Night” and “Spaceman” were equally over-the-top, the former thanks to drums that recalled Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” breakdown, the latter mostly because of all those crowd-uniting “Woah-oh-oh” choruses. “For Reasons Unknown” was given a stadium-sized shot in the arm and “From Here On Out” channeled the revving guitar of Texas tres hombres ZZ Top, a fact Flowers made sure to bring up before the song even began.
And as for the Killers frontman, well, he’s still slightly twitchy, yet he’s also come to fully embrace his role as the band’s prime (and, really, only) showman. He led the crowd in numerous sing-alongs, showed off his “dancing shoes,” and, it should be noted, became the weekend’s first performer to acknowledge there were actually basketball games going on, taking the stage in a throwback UNLV varsity — though he’d eventually ditch it in favor of a black leather jacket.
He also threw himself into each and every song, knees bent and arms extended, until the always epic “All These Things That I’ve Done,” when he decided to go symbolic. As the Dallas crowd chanted along to the sublimely ridiculous “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” refrain, Flowers slowly tugged at his jacket, as if he was pulling his skin away from his ribs, to reveal a heart that beats red, white and blue. Unabashedly so.
Saturday’s other performers didn’t need to rely on symbolism to make their points.
Country megastar Tim McGraw took the stage just as rain began to fall, but still powered through a set packed with hits (he’s got a lot of them), including “Live Like You Were Dying,” “The Cowboy in Me” and “Southern Girl.” He also proved why he’s so popular, segueing from the sunny “Mexicoma” into the sobering “Lookin’ for That Girl,” then wrapping up with “Real Good Man” — the chorus of which goes, “I may be a real bad boy, but, baby, I’m a real good man” — giving the audience a pro-party psalm, a boozy ballad and an unrepentant outlaw anthem in the space of three songs. If you weren’t aware, he’s a man for every season, even the rainy one.
And then there was LL Cool J, who didn’t let his 1:30 time slot slow him down. His set started lean and mean, with DJ Z Trip cutting up a hip-hop history course (“The Message,” “The 900 Number,” etc.) before LL stalked his way through “Mama Said Knock You Out.” From there, he touched on classics like “I Need Love” and “Going Back to Cali,” boasted and toasted on tracks like “Jack the Ripper” and “I’m Bad,” and basically went haywire, pulling out ever showman trick at his disposal, inviting fans — and actor Kevin Hart — onstage, tossing T-shirts into the crowd, snagging iPhones from the audience to snap selfies and even handing out long-stemmed roses to the ladies.
At some point during all this, he also made reference to his other job as an actor, joking “Oh so that’s what he does!” Take it from someone who was there: We didn’t need to be reminded.