There were times during last night's Killers homecoming at The Cosmopolitan's Chelsea Ballroom where I felt physically uneasy, from the unnervingly flexible floor often pounced upon by 4,000 fans jumping in unison, to the general limitations and invasions of personal space that the Chelsea's enormous new VIP (read: bottle service) sections caused for those in general admission, to the occasional assault on one's senses from a band that seemed to be overcompensating for something.
The Vegas quartet has evolved into a well-oiled, intuitive and assured live act, and, gripes aside, its Cosmopolitan debut was its best and most kinetic local performance to date. Its older songs have evolved over time. Its instrumentalists play with precision and confidence and, in the case of rhythm section Mark Stoermer and Ronnie Vannucci, vigorous flair. And singer Brandon Flowers unflinchingly dominates the stage and fully engages his audience without being distracted by it. The hesistant and uncertain vocalist we encountered at the start of the Hot Fuss campaign is now a fearless showman with few peers in the arena rock clique — especially when it comes to the projection of his voice.
That said, portions of last night's show felt oddly overwhelming. That might sound complimentary for a synth rock band, whose gusto now nearly belies its New Wave foundation. But it's also a criticism of a 10-year old band that has ditched whatever nuance and deviations from anthemry it attempted in the past. Much like the city they hail from, everything The Killers does these days sounds and looks utterly over the top, and enabling their walloping tendencies on this tour is a new album — last this year's Battle Born — that buries its listener in layered production and untempered sentimentalism. The Killers once balanced their arena-rock zeal with welcome degrees of subversion and subtlety, but now they exclusively employ a size-matters, scorched-earth strategy.
To wit, during "Runaways," the first single from Battle Born, The Killers made an already bombastic song downright steroidal. To be fair, it might have felt like a little too much because I don't enjoy that song. Yet, during one I do like, "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," I felt the same sensorial fatigue near the end of the song, despite its euphoric, funk-friendly launch and generally pleasant ascent. Even Flowers seemed overpowered by the thrust of certain numbers, like "Human," where he got so caught up in the moment that he clipped words, missed notes and sounded out of breath.
Which is to say you can't accuse him of posturing or being distant. Flowers is 100 percent earnestness and effort; onstage he's all-in, all the time. He has that hunger — for something artstic or ego-driven, sometimes I can't tell. Regardless, he's not faking it — both his words and his emotional reactions when singing them never feel less than genuine — nor is he giving you anything less than your money's worth as he works every square foot of the stage. He's very Bono-esque in that regard, and he was in fine Bono form during "A Dustland Fairytale," when his usual crowd-egging platitudes about Las Vegas turned to a touching tribute to his deceased mother, leading into one of the most passionate performances I've ever seen him give.
As for the new songs, my hope for this show was that the histrionics and derivativeness of the Battle Born material would be balanced out by vigorous performances that would reveal more instruments than synthesized and digital elements. And while it was refreshing to hear the actual band during songs like the sweeping "Miss Atomic Bomb" and midtempo nostalgia grab "The Way It Was," it wasn't enough to ignore the schmaltz or creative weaknesses of the songwriting. Battle Born is comprised almost wholly of variations on power ballads, a typically nauseating pop-song format whether in the hands of REO Speedwagon or The Killers.
Not that the band's fans agree; singalongs happened with just as many news songs as chestnuts. In fact, they sung even when the band wasn't on stage. The audience launched into the "soldier" refrain from "All These Things I've Done" before the band re-emerged for the encore, just as loudly as it sung it during the actual song's breakdown 10 minutes later at the show's close. And when band and crowd are in sync to that extent, matched with a tune as resonant as that one, it's stirring (despite the obligatory and always annoying confetti blast). Last night's concert proved that a decade into their existence, such rousing moments come naturally for The Killers.
Local upstart quintet Most Thieves opened the show with a building half-hour set that climaxed ably with "Prometheus," and San Diego's Louis XIV came out of retirement with a throwback set that included a guitar assist from Ronnie Vannucci on hit "Finding True Love is Blind."