You learn something every day. Today I learned that carrying a step ladder and camera rucksack on the London underground in the rush hour when it’s thirty degrees outside is something to be avoided at all costs. I had the rucksack because I was en route to photograph Nashville rootsy garage four-piece turned anthemic stadium rock band Kings Of Leon. I had the step ladder because I’d heard rumours that the stage at BST Hyde Park was higher than Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Sadly, the rumours turned out to be true.
At around eight-thirty, the Followhill brothers and cousin emerged from behind the most extravagant velvet curtains I’ve ever seen to wild applause from a full-house wedged into the ancient park. Kings Of Leon conveniently stood at the back of the stage and from three steps up, I could see nothing below the knee. The front row would have struggled to see them at all. I felt for them. Opening with Over from the latest album WALLS the band then raided the archive with Slow Night, So Long and King Of The Rodeo from 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. After three songs from the pit, I climbed down from the ladder and waded into the ‘Golden Circle’.
I really don’t like the principle of a segregated festival crowd. I cannot deny that I was lucky to be able to benefit – my media pass gave me access and made photography a doddle – but there is something fundamentally wrong when the back of the Golden Circle (in the main gassing and taking selfies) force the front of General Admission (in the main totally absorbed and singing their hearts out) to be wedged uncomfortably against a barrier around a hundred yards from the stage. Live music is supposed to be a collective experience and this wasn’t.
By the time I found my spot in the crowd, the curtain had reappeared and a trippy acoustic section was underway from just in front of it. Caleb Followill was standing in isolation performing WALLS, a song that was allowed to build and build and which reached a climax when the curtain again began to rise to reveal a far more expansive set behind him. This time it included a pair of touring musicians tucked at the back who I’m guessing to this point had been having a fun little gig on their own.
For the first time the light show was starting to win the battle with nature and it was nearly as impressive. Find Me followed, a song with an infectious guitar riff that appeared on Radio X amongst others about every fifteen minutes when it sat atop the playlist. The crowd knew it and let the band know they knew it.
But there was a problem. Whilst the staging and sound were excellent and the thousands in the park yelling the words did their best to lift the occasion; only the most ardent, blinkered of fans could have failed to spot that something was amiss. Kings Of Leon looked for all the world like they’d rather be someplace else. Their internal antipathy is well known, and in two hours on stage the band barely acknowledged each other. That was disappointing if not entirely unexpected but spokesman Caleb barely acknowledged the audience either. “We’re having a lot of fun up here. You guys are f*cking amazing”, he said in ironic monotone after about an hour. Only one of those statements appeared to be true and it wasn’t the former. The frontman looked like he was being force fed witchetty grubs between songs. No mate, you only have to do that when you’re no longer famous and if 55,000 people hanging on your every word isn’t enough to stir you, perhaps that time should be coming sooner rather than later. In one of his only other interactions, Caleb commended Pixies who had earlier played a fine support slot under the raging sun. “I hope you realise what you just got to see”. Yep, it was a band who looked like they were pleased to be here.
The evening closed out with Supersoaker, Sex On Fire and Waste A Moment; a trio of tunes so flamboyant they could stir the dead. I made my way to Green Park tube; cameras on back, stepladders under arm. The words to Sex On Fire were echoing down Piccadilly and the people had smiles on their faces. If only the performers could have had the same.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Kings Of Leon at BST Hyde Park on 6th July 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk