This past weekend, the Killers took the stage in Las Vegas to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their much maligned sophomore album, Sam's Town. We were there.
Performed live, “Sam's Town,” the title track of the Killers sophomore album pulls you in instantly, setting you up for a carnival ride of all killer, no filler tracks. Thanks to heavy guitar riffs, breakneck drumming, and lucid lyrics the song feels like a firework slowly bounding into the sky then exploding as the tempo builds and the spaces between lyrics retract. At least that's how it felt to me on Saturday, October 1st when 1700 fans packed into a standing room only venue located inside of Sam's Town, a dive Las Vegas casino, miles away from the glitz and glamour of the strip.
This was the second night of the Killers' aptly named “Sam’s Town Decennial Extravaganza” a title more than hinting at the fact the boys from Sin City were back at it again with the “over the top” ways they’d been chided for exactly 10 years ago to date when their sophomore album was released. More importantly, they weren’t shying away from being described as excessive or extravagant.
Dressed in outfits pulled straight from their 2006 wardrobes, Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning, Mark Stoermer, and Ronnie Vannuci played the album Sam’s Town start to finish, meaning that typical climatic moments in their set list like “When You Were Young” and “Read My Mind” were instead played in the order of track listing. Sans their customary pyrotechnics and floor to ceiling screens, the stripped down performance still evoked singing and dancing in unison from the crowd that stood under a canopy of carnival flags and string lights, eager to pay homage to the not-even-close-to critical darling for its 10 year anniversary.
The extravaganza, with all proceeds going to a local Las Vegas charity, included multiple experiences curated for fans like specialty cocktails named after hit songs and deep cuts (I was a big fan of the cranberry tinged Spaceman and bourbon heavy Uncle Jonny), a bus tour of iconic Vegas spots in Killers history, movies chosen by the band playing in the casino theatre, themed meals, and the Killers’ music playing from all the casino speakers throughout the weekend, mixing well with the pings and dings of slot machines. There were even movie style posters scattered about, cheekily highlighting negative album reviews.
As Hot Fuss' younger, rambunctious, louder, less refined brother who was definitely not as popular with the ladies (blame it on the facial hair) Sam's Town received mixed reviews, many of them negative. So why the harsh words?
In an interview with Giant Magazine, frontman Brandon Flowers famously called the then upcoming album “one of the best albums in the past twenty years." Once those words were spoken the die was cast and so was the yardstick the album would be measured against. Critics turned off by the broad stroke of confidence seemed eager to prove him wrong.
Rolling Stone said the album left "no pompous arena cliché untweaked." Slate said the album played like "a parody of rock bombast"; and the New York Times called it a, “classic case of a young band overreaching to assert its significance." The ongoing theme being that they were trying too damn hard and doing too damn much.
Clearly the fans didn’t feel that way, and that hasn’t been lost on the band. Flowers stopped during the show on a few occasions, one time in particular to thank the crowd for their support, saying that we should all do it again in 10 years.
One of the best parts of a fan-filled show is watching the reaction to rarely played tracks. Songs like "Why Do I Keep Counting" and "My List" were received as well if not better than album singles. However, once “Exitlude,” the last track of the album was played, the Killers left the flower covered, antler-decorated, marquee backed stage for a few minutes before returning for an encore full of non Sam’s Town hits and fan favorites like “Spaceman,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Dustland Fairy Tale,” and “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
By the time the show came to a close, 90 minutes after they first took the stage, my boots couldn’t grip the ground due to the texture of the piles of shiny confetti beneath me. I walked cautiously through the crowd of Killers T-shirts clad lingerers, some waiting for set lists, others just wanting to be in the same room as what just happened. All of them looking ecstatic and out of breath from dancing and singing every word. For the fans, Sam’s Town will always be a formidable album.
So were the critics right? Is Sam’s Town some type of bombastic parody? I don’t think so, but I understand the sentiment. The quick change between Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town looks forced at first glance, but how do you expect four young men from Las Vegas to be received when they unshroud and just "play" themselves? They lose a little bit of shine from being America’s best British band and they fall into a closer version of what they actually are. And nobody is going to call Vegas the birthplace of reality, but that doesn't mean the Killers are counterfeit.
So were the Killers, back in 2006 overreaching to assert their significance? Maybe. But ten years later watching them play to a sold out room of die-hard, sweaty, overjoyed fans, it's safe to say they were maybe right.