Two rock bands that have conspicuously polished and preened their sound on record in recent years, Kings of Leon and Dawes, came to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday night with a mission to prove to longtime Twin Cities fans that they can still spark a fire on stage.
The Tennessee-bred Kings could be grateful they can still draw an arena crowd. Or they almost can, anyway. The band of three brothers and one cousin abruptly canceled a tour and went on hiatus in 2011, and then came back from that rough patch in 2013 with a commercial and musical dud of an album.
Last year’s follow-up, “Walls,” brought back some of the momentum, but not enough to even half-fill the hockey arena with about 7,000 fans.
Rootsier Los Angeles openers Dawes — also anchored by two brothers — had yet to play a local arena date but had performed at just about every other venue in town, from the Triple Rock and First Avenue to the State Theatre.
Dawes’ jangly, soulful sound transferred well even in a vacant arena, especially their most harmonious tunes. The old favorite “When My Time Comes” wasn’t a big singalong moment like it usually is, but it still earned a big cheer. Even more of a crowd-pleaser, singer Taylor Goldsmith dedicated the unabashedly nostalgic “All My Favorite Bands” to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Kings of Leon’s set started out in a swirl of purple smoke and a backlit stage for the almost Cure-like, brooding new tune “Conversation Piece.” Even before that song ended, drummer Nathan Followill launched into the overdrive beat of “Taper Jean Girl,” kicking the set into a high gear that would continue through two more older barnstormers, “The Bucket” and “Molly’s Chamber.”
More than he used to, KoL frontman Caleb Followill really took command of the show a half-hour in, starting with a dramatically sung “Use Somebody.” After that, he performed “Milk” solo in front of a giant curtain and remained alone through most of the emotional, heartbeat-paced title track from “Walls,” during which the curtain rose to reveal an expanded version of the quartet with an added keyboardist and guitarist.
Though he’s never been gregarious or flashy, Caleb remained aloof and looked a tad bored for much of the nearly two-hour concert — although he did mutter reassuringly to the crowd mid-show, “I’m having a really good time up here.” He later admitted in an exhausted tone, “We’ve been on the road for ... I don’t know, a year.”
To his credit, the frontman still sang with impressive verve as the set blazed on, and for the most part, the rest of the band sounded as tight as it should a year into a tour.
There’s no denying the inferiority of some of KoL’s more recent tunes, though, something the beefed-up lineup and hi-fi video and lighting effects couldn’t hide. “Find Me” aimed to be U2 grandiose but fell flat.
Another new one, “Around the World,” failed to spark much of a dance party with its disco-y groove. Wisely, the band ignored its 2013 “Mechanical Bull” album almost entirely.
After a few midtempo numbers — the nostalgic “Back Down South” almost sounded Bob Seger-like — the show steadily picked up steam for the last half-hour, ending with the one-two punch of the 2008 mega-single “Sex on Fire” and the newest hit “Waste a Moment.” Even then, it remained hard to tell if the singer was happy, but easy to see the crowd sure was.
Here's Kings of Leon's set list from Wednesday:
Taper Jean Girl
Eyes on You
Around the World
Back Down South
Sex on Fire
Waste a Moment