By David Menconi
RALEIGH -- You've got to give Kings of Leon credit for not making it easy on themselves. Monday night at Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek, they brought along two sharp opening acts, which meant they had to put out. And they managed it pretty well.
Georgia trio The Whigs began the evening with an energetic half-hour of noble-savage primitivism in a key of garage rock, along the lines of Neil Young's Crazy Horse. They weren't terribly long on nuance or subtlety, but they were fun.
Next came Black Keys, the guitar-drums duo from Akron, Ohio (although they were augmented by bass and keyboards for part of their set). In many ways, Black Keys were more memorable than the headliners, playing yowling blues-rock with slippery grooves. I had no idea the Mississippi Delta extended that far north.
After the lights went down, Kings of Leon entered to billowing red smoke that smelled like gunpowder and gave the stage a gauzy look (as did the black-and-white shots of the band on the video screens). And they set about playing a very businesslike 90 minutes of arena rock that went down with a minimum of interaction, either with each other or the crowd.
While the band's performance seemed a bit impersonal, the Kings delivered it with impressive skill. Lead guitarist Matthew Followill showed a lot of range, occasionally bringing U2's atmospheric grandeur to mind. He also showed facility for White Stripes-style garage rock.
Drummer Nathan Followill was solid and provided some of the most distinctive background vocals of the night, an idiosyncratic yodel. Bassist Jared Followill managed to avoid any interactions with wayward birds (the band recently canceled a show in St. Louis after three songs when a pigeon in the rafters defecated in his mouth).
Meanwhile, frontman Caleb Followill held things down at centerstage with his signature vocal growl. He might be a double-platinum rock star with a cutting lyrical streak, but he still carries himself as a regular guy pretty much all the way around.
When it came time for the big breakthrough hit "Sex on Fire," Caleb asked the crowd to sing it for him because he's been sick lately. The crowd came through admirably, and he saluted the assembled throng with a toast afterward.
"I may sound like [expletive], but I don't have to feel like it," he said, taking a sip. Nah, he did fine.