The Killers Kill in Boston: Review

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The Killers’ Brandon Flowers in Boston, 1-18. (Photo by Roza Yarchun, used with permission)

Journey fans might wince and The Killers fans might wince, but hear me out: Could the Killers be the 21st century Journey? OK, hipper than Journey, but maybe in the way Elvis was hipper than Wayne Newton.

At Boston’s TD Garden Jan. 7, the arena-packing band from Las Vegas flirted with noise and dissonance at the beginning (the percussive-heavy “Wonderful Wonderful”) and near the end (“The Calling”), but, ultimately, the Killers specialize in anthemic, optimistic pop/rock, the kind of songs where the crowd sings along to most everything and dapper front-man Brandon Flowers sometimes leads them with hands raised high above his head, moving side to side. At times, he was the emcee, urging the crowd to engage in call-and-response singing. Guitars and keyboards built to sure-shot climaxes, with bombast being the Killers’ best friend.

If that’s not people-pleasing Journey-land, I don’t know what is.

The ever-mobile Flowers, dressed in semi-sparkly black through most of the show and mega-sequined gold suit for the encores, has a fervent, charismatic preacher way about him. And to borrow a line from Warren Zeon’s “Werewolves of London,” “His hair was perfect.”

Watch the Killers perform the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” at the Boston show

Preceding “The Calling” was a spoken word gospel bit taped by Woody Harrelson (Matthew 9:10, 9:11), then Flowers sang, “Walked into town with a message for my old man/I got the last two chapters of Matthew in my hand.” He went on to sing about “the road to the kingdom is burning bright.” (Flowers may be a pop star, but he’s a Mormon pop star.)

The Killers’ Brandon Flowers (Photo © Rob Loud; used with permission)

The band, as ever, surrounds itself with an aura of (tongue-in-cheek?) Vegas-y glitz. A gaudy gender-specific neon Mars symbol (male!) was at the front of the stage—Flowers’ go-to, shielding a small keyboard that he sporadically played—and the backing vocal trio had three Venus symbols (female!) in front of them. There was a water tower with BOSTON (that changes city-to-city) on it stage right and behind the band a giant video screen that projected various abstract enhancements, starting with diamond-shaped projections.

Flowers was very Boston-friendly. He noted the band always seemed to play particularly well here and launched a salute by noting various icons: “Benjamin Franklin, Dunkin’ Donuts, the ’80s Celtics and the Cars.” Whereupon, the Killers launched into a note-perfect version of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees’ “Just What I Needed,” right down to that synth squiggle at the end. It was a kick.

Although before we go much further we have to pose this: The Killers have released five albums, Flowers has two solo albums. The material played was the Killers’, but how Killers was this show (and the second leg of this U.S. tour, which runs through Feb. 6)? The touring band consists of two original members, Flowers (looking rather like a younger Tom Cruise) and bearded, wild-haired drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. Also on board: keyboardist Robert Connolly and guitarist Taylor Milne, who is also in Vannucci’s side project Big Talk.)

Related: When Paul McCartney surprised a Killers audience on New Year’s Eve

It may very well be a moot point to fans (and I’m not suggesting it’s of paramount concern), but it’s curious. Guitarist Dave Keening and bassist Mark Stoermer, while on the latest album, Wonderful Wonderful, have opted out of the Killers’ tour, replaced by guitarist Ted Sabaly and bassist Jake Blanton. (Flowers also took up the bass near the end of the gig.)

The Killers’ Robbie Vannucci Jr. (Photo © Rob Loud; used with permission)

(The band’s publicist told us that Keuning and Stoermer “both play sometimes—when they can. Mark is studying for a degree and so he did the ‘Sam’s Town’ anniversary, touring and playing on the record, but he’s only done a handful of shows on the ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ tour.’ Dave did up until Lollapalooza and is now taking time at home to spend with his family.”)

The Killers, a new wave-cum-classic rock outfit, are a mixed bag of tricks. I am about the millionth person to note the key line from the hit “Human”—“Are we human?/Or are we dancer?”—is the No. 1 dumb rock couplet of the 21st century, but we should also note no one seems to care. Their second song, the funky, swaggering “I’m the Man,” had to be a cheesy, ironic parody of a cocksure cowboy and his bravado, but Flowers played it pretty straight, as if he was that boastful character. Following that, Flowers said, “Evel Knievel said, ‘People don’t want to see the perfect landing, they come to see the intent. Tonight, we’re hoping to attempt the perfect landing.” Soon, he was off to Bowie-ville with two hook-packed earworms, “Somebody Told Me” and “Spaceman”—abducted by aliens, but in a good way? And then he was back down to earth with “The Way It Was,” referencing Elvis (that Vegas thing again) and musing about a broken love, “Maybe a thief stole your heart/Or maybe we just drifted apart.”

In “The River is Wild,” Flowers went Springsteen-ian with an intro about spending your youth in a frustrating small town (for him, in Utah) and that now, he was, 21 years later, “working so hard so they don’t send me back.” (OK, that was a trifle disingenuous—he’s probably not going to be sent back.)

Preceding “I Can’t Stay,” there were some Flower-ian words of wisdom, pinched from Hemingway: “There’s nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” In “Rut,” Flowers pleaded to a lover not to leave him because he was in that rut—serious enough topic, even if the sound had a cotton candy lightness about it.

To their credit, though the Killers in concert shift their pop/rock axis toward the rock side and the substitute Killers, at times, cranked up a pretty good din. There’s a relentlessness about the Killers—we’re going to entertain you if it kills us: 22 songs in an hour-50-minute show. A smattering of slow/mid-tempo songs as resting points and then more bang-for-the-buck rockers like “Run for Cover” and “When You Were Young.”

Near the end, flash pots exploded and streamers and confetti covered the crowd on the floor. It closed, natch, with obsessive, helter-skelter “Mr. Brightside.” Flowers rips through a setup—“It started out with a kiss/How did it end up like this?/It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss/Now I’m falling asleep/And she’s calling a cab”—and winds up drowning in a sea of jealousy. But it’s a peppy, new wave-ish rocker. There was not a moment of doubt that the Killers wouldn’t leave you in a up mood.

Watch the Killers perform “When You Were Young” in Boston

The Killers tour continues through July. Tickets are available here and here.

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Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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