Oxegen is Kings Of Leon’s world, we only pass through it once a year. If anyone had doubted the wisdom of booking the band back for a second consecutive headliner they need only have tried to make their way anywhere around the main stage late on Saturday night. There is no spare inch of grass / mud to be had anywhere, even right up to the food stalls. Clearly, this is the band that people want to see. What that does mean though is that the life is sucked out of every other stage for those two hours.
Even NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS feel the pinch. Approaching the O2 stage from across the site the turn out looks woeful, especially given the fast expanse that houses them. Cave is far from deterred and gives it the usual high drama. He is very much an acquired taste and – like a few of the acts this weekend – perhaps in not quite the right place but there’s still something magical about the old boy. He even wheels Shane McGowan out at the end much to everyone’s delight and McGowan’s apparent bemusement.
The KOL effect is even more noticeable at AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR, who let rip to a smaller crowd then they’d normally play to in Belfast. Which is a real shame, because we would love to have seen them reach a new audience. They are, of course, fantastic and give every note more effort than most of the bigger bands here put into their entire sets. Rory’s guitar packs up at the death so he chooses to dive head first over the barrier. Epic.
Passing through the Heineken Green Spheres tent were there seem to be more people in JERRY FISH & THE MUDBUG than the audience, it’s over to the New Bands stage for THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT. They surprise us on a number of levels. Having heard a couple of songs on the radio we were expecting a standard US indie guitar outfit (the name doesn’t help) but, resplendent in suits and with added violin, they prove a lot more interesting than that. The songs are tight, the delivery interesting and we make a note to explore more in future, which is surely what a New Bands stage is all about.
KINGS OF LEON are no doubt oblivious to this audience black hole they have created but it should ring a bell. When they made their debut at this festival in 2004, they came up against The Frames and faced a similar sort of crowd to many others tonight. They were, however, a completely thrilling experience – gradually filling their small tent as people streamed across the site. In short, it was one of those great festival moments. How things have changed. Oxegen has proved a barometer for their career, seeing them make the graduation to afternoon main stage and then headliners – both of which found them out of their depth.
So would 2009 be the year that they proved themselves worthy of their exalted status. Well yes….and no. They certainly seem more comfortable in the role now, perhaps thanks to their new found success at home, perhaps simply down to experience. The stage show that accompanies the twenty song setlist is state of the art and no-one could accuse them of not giving value for money. Why, then, is it all so unengaging? The truth is that, as their albums have become bigger commercial successes, so has the music become less interesting. ‘Be Somebody’, ‘Sex On Fire’, ‘On Call’ et all are fine as they go but we can’t help longing for more of the spark that they showed (and still show tonight) on ‘Molly’s Chambers’ and ‘The Bucket’. What you can’t argue with is that – right here, right now, tonight – it works. Whereas Blur were a great band on the wrong place (see our review here), Kings Of Leon are on OK band in the perfect place. And if that means that they bring people in and allow the festival to indulge more interesting acts elsewhere, even if they end up playing to the faithful few. So for this year, they did their job but please next year can someone ring the changes?