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Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden

Rock Is Not Dead

Checking off the top act remaining on my current “gotta see live” list, I went with my wife to see The Killers in concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. While there were a few bumps in the road, on the whole the show was a reminder of why they are possibly the best rock band still in their prime today.

The Setting

I’ve previously described The Killers as “[t]he best young (under-40) rock band, period” – the main competition right now being Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – and their 2006 album Sam’s Town is arguably the best album of the last 15 years, so I was eager to get to see them live while they’re still at the top of their game, ten years into their career and touring in support of their fourth studio album. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is 31, and the rest of the band is in their mid-30s; Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci released solo projects before their latest album came out, Flowers with a solo album (Flamingo) and Vannucci with his own band, Big Talk (Big Talk). The concert had originally been scheduled for a Friday night in December, but was cancelled when Flowers came down with laryngitis, so our wait for this show had been a long one.

MSG is generally regarded as a great arena to see a show – it’s not as scenic as Jones Beach, as perfect acoustically as Radio City or as impressive as a stadium show, and it’s very loud, but for its size it’s a good venue. And, of course, given the proximity to Penn Station it’s about the easiest concert venue there is to access by mass transit.

I would estimate that the bulk of the crowd was in the mid-20s to early 30s range, which would be people who were in high school or college when the band hit it big almost a decade ago; there were a fair number of people around my age (41) or a little older, but few of the fifty/sixtysomethings you’d see at, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were clearly some college kids but I did not see a whole lot of teenagers, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the band’s current album, Battle Born – their only studio album since 2008 – hasn’t sold especially well in the U.S. compared to their prior albums or received a ton of radio attention. Every single person I saw at the show was white, a fact that speaks to rock’s demographic problem going forward. There was a fair amount of singing along, and the first few rows of general admission in front of the stage were a fist-pumping lot, but otherwise it was your basic crowd of adults on a Tuesday night. A number of people near us bailed out during the last song to head downstairs, presumably to catch trains at Penn Station. On the other hand, this was the first show I’ve been to in a while where there was really a lot of noticeable pot smoke around us, and on the way out two guys near us started jawing and came to blows.

The opening act – originally planned to be Tegan and Sara when the show was first scheduled – ended up being a New York-based band called The Virgins, and their opening set must have been short; the official start time was 8, my wife and I arrived at 8:30 from an event at my son’s high school and they’d finished their set already. The Killers went on at 9:10, and played until a little after 11pm.

The Show

The show opened with an unusual twist compared to most of the concerts I’ve seen: The Killers just walked onstage without fanfare with the house lights still on and launched right into an energetic rendition of ‘Mr. Brightside’, their biggest radio hit and still arguably their best-known song. Playing with the house lights on made the Garden feel less like The World’s Most Famous Arena and more like an oversized high school gym, all the better to foster a little less distance between the band and the fans.

The second song was ‘Spaceman’, and that was one of two songs on the night – the other being ‘Somebody Told Me’, much later in the set – that had real audio problems, as there was a lot of rumbling feedback that made it difficult to hear Flowers’ vocals. ‘Spaceman’ has a lot of electronic background production on the album, and I suspect perhaps there was a backing track playing along with the band on those two songs that didn’t work all that well. But the sound problems wouldn’t be an issue for the rest of the show, as vocals and instruments were both crisply audible.

The set also seemed a bit minimalist at first for a band that’s always put a lot of thought into its music videos and other visuals, aside from the band’s lightning-bolt logo front and center; the one video screen was mounted behind the stage and a bit hard to see from further up. But the laser light show worked well for ‘Shadowplay’ and the fireworks and confetti as the show reached its conclusion were good visual touches.

Flowers talks less between songs than most frontmen; after an early apology for cancelling the original concert date, it was pretty late in the show before there was a break between songs at all, although he did introduce the extremely Springsteenish ‘Dustland Fairytale’ with a little talk about growing up in Vegas and ‘When You Were Young’ by talking about being nervous recording a followup to Hot Fuss. There were two other musicians besides the 4-man band onstage, and he completely failed to mention them when introducing the band midway through the show, and ended up re-introducing everybody during the last song.

Flowers’ quavery, emotional voice isn’t really the type that you’d expect to hold up well in concert, but after a bit of a rushed start over the first two songs, he was solid and about 95% of how he sounds in the studio. He’s exceptionally skinny – the man has the lower body of a 15 year old – and his stage presence is that of a teenager performing alone in his room with the stereo cranked to 11; rather than try to control his nervous energy, he just channels it into his performance, hopping on and off the risers at the end of the stage and exhorting everybody to clap and sing along with him. He demanded that the fans forget it’s Tuesday and put on their dancing shoes for ‘From Here On Out’, a rockabilly number from the latest album that is fun but not really something you could dance to.

Musically, there were not a lot of departures in how the band played their songs, unlike a band like Grace Potter & the Nocturnals that leaves a lot of room in the setlist for extended jams; seeing how sharply executed their songs were and how closely they hewed to the studio versions was a reminder of quite how tightly constructed The Killlers’ songs really are. They just seem to have put too much thought into every note of the melodies already to mess with them. Vannucci’s drums are the real driving force behind most of their songs, but Dave Keuning’s guitar work is just remarkably precise. (Bassist Mark Stoermer has the low-key role, as bassists usually do).

Overall, the 20-song setlist was pretty evenly divided and reflected the astonishing depth of quality music for a band with 4 studio albums: 5 songs from their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, 4 from Sam’s Town, 3 from 2008’s Day & Age, and 5 from Battle Born, plus their cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ from the 2007 Sawdust compilation and 2 covers. They couldn’t hit every single one of their good songs (‘Bones’, for example, really requires a horn section), but they got close; my only real gripe with the setlist was the omission of the best song on Battle Born, the driving uptempo anthem rocker ‘The Rising Tide,’ while playing the less inspiring title track as a show-closer and the somewhat disappointing ‘The Way It Was’ as the third song of the show.

The more fun of the covers, which the band has been doing this tour, is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop hits of the 1980s, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, originally by Tommy James and the Shondelles but more famously covered by Tiffany in 1987 – it’s a pop song that resonates for my generation (I had just turned 16 when the song hit the airwaves, and it was sung by a 16-year-old singer, and they played it in such heavy rotation on Z100 at the time that you could hear it 3 times in an hourlong school bus ride), but I’m not sure how well-recognized it is by younger rock fans, let alone the Tommy James original (Flowers, with a nod to his own band’s pervasive U2 influences, introduced the song by saying, “Tiffany stole this song from Tommy James and the Shondells. Tonight, we’re stealing it back.”).

The other cover was ‘New York, New York,’ which Flowers delivered well enough in the traditional tempo and arrangement. Which brings up an odd point about The Killers. Some of my favorite musicians – from Bruce Springsteen to the Irish band The Saw Doctors to pop star Kelly Clarkson – give off a strong sense of geographical rootedness, of being from and of a particular place (respectively the Jersey Shore, Galway and Mayo Counties in the West of Ireland, and Texas). The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, and since Flowers discovered Springsteen before recording Sam’s Town (named after a Vegas casino) he’s made a point of making a lot of references to the band’s home town, from the desert motifs of ‘Dustland Fairytale’ and ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa Claus’ to ‘Battle Born’ (named for the Nevada state motto) to his solo track ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’. In the intro to ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Dustland Fairytale,’ Flowers seemed intent on talking up New York (partly, no doubt, in an effort to flatter the local audience) and about how “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is a lot more inspiring than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Something in that echoed one of the (fair) criticisms I’ve seen of Flowers’ recent writing: that he may be from Vegas but he’s not really of Vegas and doesn’t really get the city’s gamblers-and-stale-booze culture. He is, after all, a Mormon family man, and his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys, an influence you can hear in Hot Fuss, an album that sounds more English than American and has no references at all to Vegas or Nevada. As earnest as they are, Flowers’ efforts to claim his home town always seem a little forced, forced in the same way as singing ‘New York, New York’ just because you’re in New York.

With a touring hiatus and half the band making solo albums before they reuinted for Battle Born, and then the less smashing commercial performance of the album, fans of The Killers can be excused for worrying if their future as a band may be a little uncertain. Battle Born itself might have benefitted if a few of the weaker songs had been replaced by the best songs on Flowers’ and Vannucci’s solo albums. Even the crowd did not seem all that into the new material beyond the two singles, ‘Runaways’ and ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ (the latter is a ballad, and while it’s grown on me, we saw in the ballads on Battle Born why The Killers have rarely recorded ballads). But for now, in concert, they remain at the peak of their game, playing both the old and new material with enthusiasm and skill. It’s a very fun show and very much worth seeing if you care about rock & roll.

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