When the Budweiser Made in America festival comes to a close in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art next Sunday night, the last band standing will be Kings of Leon.
Every year the Jay Z-curated Labor Day weekend fest delivers a one-two punch, with Saturday's opening-night headliner coming from the hip-hop/R&B world - in this case, the irrepressible Kanye West - while a rock act closes the two-day gathering in a grand finale the following evening.
This year, that latter job falls to the Kings, the Nashville band of brothers (and one cousin) touring behind last year's comeback album Mechanical Bull. Front man Caleb Followill said, "We've got some things planned for Made in America. I think it's going to be pretty epic."
The Kings are three Followill sons of a Pentecostal minister (singer and rhythm guitarist Caleb, drummer Nathan, and bassist Jared) plus cousin Matthew on lead guitar. That they are even in a position potentially to bring down the house at Made in America is an accomplishment, considering the turmoil that came close to tearing them apart a few years ago.
The band had a highly successful '00s. They debuted as long-haired Southern rockers with a manic edge with Youth and Young Manhood in 2003.
As children, the Kings - named after grandfather Leon Followill, who died at age 84 in January - weren't allowed to listen to secular music. That forbidden-fruit angle has been overblown, said Caleb Followill, speaking from his home in Nashville while sharing a breakfast of bacon and bananas with his daughter Dixie, 2. (Supermodel wife Lily Aldridge was out of town.)
"We were kids, so we didn't always abide by the rules," Followill, 32, remembered. Part of the band's hedonistic streak came from their father: "My dad was a rocker before he was a minister. He was going to Three Dog Night concerts and doing LSD. So there was always that side to him."
When the family was in the car and on the road, and his mother and brothers Nathan and Jared would fall asleep, Caleb would stay awake with his father. "I would be in the back seat in the middle," Caleb said, "and I would lean forward, and he would put on a little classic rock for me. So my love for Thin Lizzy and Tom Petty, that came from him."
The punkish energy of early Kings albums like Youth and 2004's Aha Shake Heartbreak emanates from the church. "They were not tame, hymnal-type of church services. We were very loud. Most of those drumbeats you hear on our first album, that's the kind of songs we were playing in church."
Stars in England immediately, the band didn't break through big-time here until it added arena-rock anthems to its arsenal and brought Followill's sandpaper soul voice to the fore.
The singer, who is the band's chief songwriter (although songs are typically credited to all family members), has wide-ranging tastes. In Nashville, he checks out western-swing and bluegrass bands. "That's really my kind of jam," he said.
Older brother Nathan is recovering from broken ribs suffered in a bus accident after a show in Boston this month. It caused the band to cancel nine shows - but they kept their Aug. 12 date on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, with Questlove playing drums (since Nathan couldn't) on the tune "Family Tree."
Nevertheless, the night before this interview, Caleb and the mending Nathan had taken up an offer from their friend Harry Styles to go see One Direction in Nashville.
"The best part was, I got recognized and had my picture taken with a bunch of 12-year-old girls," Caleb said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Oh yeah, I still got it.' I instantly sent the picture to my wife."
The U.S. breakthrough for the Kings came with Only By the Night in 2008. Tracks such as "Sex On Fire" and "Use Somebody," which won a Grammy for Record of the Year, were pop hits that lost them some fans and gained many new ones. The follow-up, however, 2010's Come Around Sundown, performed sluggishly artistically and commercially, and years of burning it at both ends pushed the band to the breaking point.
It snapped at a show in Dallas in 2011, when Caleb told a crowd, "I'm going to go backstage and I'm going to vomit, I'm going to drink a beer, and I'm going to come back out and play three more songs." He never returned, and the band canceled 26 shows.
"It was just overkill," Caleb said now. "We had been going on as hard as we possibly could for as long as we possibly could. . . . There's an easy quick-fix for everything when you're on the road. There are doctors who, if you can't sing, will help you out, and things of that nature. After years of that, your body says, 'If you're not going to stop, I'm going to make you stop.' And it was that time for us."
And was it almost the end of Kings of Leon?
Last year, Nathan Followill told Rolling Stone that was never a possibility: "Being a family band, we were bound to have that awkward first-time hangout at a show or at Christmas or Thanksgiving . . . we knew it wasn't over."
Caleb doesn't sound that certain. The songwriter quit drinking for nine months and also started writing songs. "I always hoped and thought they would be Kings of Leon songs, but at the same time, if they weren't, I wasn't going to stop writing. . . . Luckily, everything is good with all of us, and it turned into a Kings of Leon album."
That happened partly because many of the best Mechanical Bull songs convey how important holding the band together is to its singer. "Rock City," for instance, is a view from the bottom: "I found myself face-first on the floor / Searching for something, but never finding something."
"Comeback Story" puts to music one of their grandfather's favorite sayings: "I walk a mile in your shoes / And now I'm a mile away, and I've got your shoes." Followill reported that "the first time I played it for them, everyone ran to their instruments. I could see that they wanted to be part of it.
"Certain songs are kind of an open letter to my family and my band," Followill said. "A lot of time I use my songwriting as a way of saying things I'm not comfortable saying face-to-face to people. So I'll put it in a song. It's very therapeutic. I used it to say things to the guys that maybe I could not say. . . . . So yeah, it was one of those things where they realized there was a lot of life left in what we had."
MADE IN AMERICA
Aug. 30 and 31, starting at noon both days, on the Ben Franklin Parkway, between the Eakins Oval and 22d Street.
Saturday acts include Kanye West, the National, Chromeo, and Steve Aoki. Sunday acts include Tiesto, Pharrell Williams, Girl Talk, Grimes, and Spoon. Kings of Leon close the festival.
Tickets: $106.70 daily, $168.70 for two-day pass.
Coming Friday in Weekend, Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca previews the two-day festival.