Live Review

The Killers, Sheffield Arena

The band’s entrance screams of an Elton John residency.

“It’s not fuckin’ finished yet!”

It’s July 2004 at the Sheffield Leadmill club; and a 23-year-old Brandon Flowers throws a hissy fit during ‘Glamorous Indie Rock Roll’, as unfamiliar fans start clapping wildly before he gets to the all-important final coda of ‘It’s Indie Rock N Roll For Me!’ Fast-forward five years, and The Killers are back in Steel City, this time playing to an expectant crowd of 13,500 people, and exhibiting a palpably different stage dynamic. DIY sees how the Las Vegas boys win over the kind of audience they’ve always killed for.

Following support act Louis XIV, who Flowers calls “one of the last rock n roll bands” in a “dying” age says a lot about the current state of alternative music; The Killers being one of the rare bands to have rocketed out of the ashes of this decade’s ‘post-punk’ revival, with most of their peers either hitting a creative brick wall or taking a commercial nose-dive. Despite constant jibes at their latest musical ‘direction’, there is no denying that The Killers remain relevant – and also firmly anchored to their roots in 80s pop, post-punk and the bright lights of Vegas. One swift look at the arena stage tonight and it’s like a camera flash of a cross-between Caesar’s Palace and Club Tropicana – bizarrely decked in palm trees, steel drums and a glitzy “K” shaped keyboard-synthesiser. Even the band’s entrance screams of an Elton John residency, as Brandon ‘Feathers’ trots on, sporting a jacket festooned with plumage on his shoulder pads, courtesy of eccentric English designer ‘Mrs Jones’ (Kylie Minogue, Scissor Sisters). During the band’s opener, ‘Human’, he is every bit the showman, pogoing on the speakers, strutting across the stage and darting down the aisles like a glittery pistol is pushing him onto every single square millimetre of platform. The song’s now-famous couplet “Are we human / Or are we dancer?”, a line that even found its way into Bruce Forsyth’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ cue cards, is so audible in the auditorium tonight, that Flowers’ animation grinds to a halt, and with only a slight head-bob, he skilfully cajoles the entire floor into carrying its catchy chorus.

The dynamic performances continue as crowd-pleasers ‘Somebody Told Me’ and ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ are thrown in early, the former causing Flowers to playfully spin around backwards on his heels to stress his “rushing around”, with the latter seeing him concentrate his hands on his microphone to drive out a self-possessed spirit of urgency. And though his energy is infectious, the first half perhaps is even more memorable for the band’s dazzling showcase of ‘Day & Age’, whose bright-eyed beats feel natural alongside the stellar hits, and make an effortless transition to the big stage. For example, the African chug-chant of ‘This Is Your Life’ and tropicalia lament of ‘I Can’t Stay’, complete with pattering steel drums and gentle lilt, add zest and colour to the set list. They also provide a point of balance to the frenetic glitterball funk of ‘Joy Ride’ and swagger of ‘The World We Live In’, on which the illuminated projection of a globe on an almost blacked-out stage makes it one of the most atmospheric moments of the evening. The other highlight would be the now-live staple cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’, which, performed against the black and white film reel of ‘Ian Curtis’’ epileptic dance from ‘Control’, provokes an instant eeriness that underscores Flowers’ effort to faithfully capture Curtis’ sombre drawl - a rare case of repackaging an underground gem as an impressive Arena anthem.

With a tendency to shy away in public speaking and interviews, The Killers show this evening that when it comes to the stage, they’re masters of the skill of letting their songs do the talking. Credit goes to largely to their theatrical delivery, but it is also instinctively through the way they’ve designed their set list, calling on choice moments from all three albums, plus ‘Sawdust’. A case in point is the escalating clatter of guitar and bass on the ‘Shadowplay’ outro spilling over into a pulsating rendition of ‘Spaceman’, after which ‘A Dustland Fairytale’ provides a vital change in pace and a romantic segue into the mesmerizing acoustic-piano of ‘Sam’s Town’ (‘Live from Abbey Road’ version). Against the band’s muted instrumentation, Flowers’ tone evokes a contemplative nostalgia that literally brings a bustling Arena to a chilling standstill. So much so that, after they wrap up their pit stop at ‘Sam’s Town’ with ‘Read My Mind’, Flowers laughs that the audience have suddenly gone “all quiet”. Then, bang, out of nowhere, Dave Keuning strikes up the opening notes of ‘Mr Brightside’, followed by a colossal ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, where the “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” mantra develops into a feverish festival chant, as the gold-lit buzzwords flicker across the plasma screen, and lights dramatically explode in time to the pounding of Ronnie Vannucci’s drums.

When they return for an encore, kicking off with ‘Bones’ and culminating in the epic ‘When You Were Young’, the only conclusion to draw is that it is the entire cast of The Killers, and not just Brandon Flowers’ one-man show, which makes this evening into the spectacle it is. During the Roxy Music-styled sax blast of ‘Losing Touch’, the frontman jokingly headbangs along to Keuning’s guitar solo and plays air drums with Vannucci, before proceeding to mouth along to Mark Stoermer’s bass throb on ‘Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’. Pumping his blood full of dynamite, and releasing him from instrument duty, The Killers give their frontman free reign to charge from synths to piano, and the free-hands to fire up their audience, allowing him to shine through as the much-loved ‘star’ he proves he can be. In business, it’s called “using your assets”, and in music, it’s about being a “group” in the true sense of the word.

Brandon Flowers may not have the single best voice in rock, and The Killers may not have made the best album of 2008, but the fact that they know their strengths as pop music makers, and have shrewdly tailored their broad catalogue of songs to best suit the live arena makes them one of the top live bands at the moment.

In a recent interview, Flowers said that through The Killers’ music, he hopes to provide the world with some light relief during these ‘serious’ times. Unashamedly glam and undoubtedly upbeat, it is no surprise that his band penned ‘Mr Brightside’. He IS Mr Brightside. After tonight’s performance, we all are.

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