Festivals

Last Call for Sin: The Killers Close Out Panorama Festival With Expertly Convincing Classic Rock Set

The Killers
Anton Corbijn

The Killers

If you'd paid even the tiniest bit of attention to the headlines coming out of the Panorama Festival in New York this weekend (Jul 27-29), you'd know that the fest had a lot of ground to make up on its third and final day.

The first day had barely gotten underway before thunderstorms and the threat of lightning forced the organizers to evacuate -- canceling sets from big names like Dua Lipa, Migos and The Weeknd in the process, and leaving the grounds a muddy mess for the rest of the weekend. Further disappointment was delivered on Saturday, when rap legend Lil Wayne was announced as a no-show 20 minutes after his set was supposed to begin. And even Sunday started in the hole, with the early revelation that classic-rock revivalists (and festival favorites) Greta Van Fleet would be unable to perform, due to their drummer's injured hand.

Though Janet Jackson's headlining performance on Saturday was a triumph, and Sunday built impressive steam through excellent sets by David Byrne, The xx and ODESZA, it would still be up to the final night's headliners to leave a final impression stronger than that of all the prior letdowns. And for that, Panorama turned to The Killers. 

The Killers were something of a curious choice to close the fest's final night. They'd essentially been anointed as classic rock flame-keepers on the same stage two years earlier when they headlined the rival Governors Ball festival (also held at New York's Randall's Island), but even since then, the festival economy has shifted, and now most legacy rock bands -- particularly those in the old-school, straight white male mold -- seem a little too safe to actually be considered a safe bet anymore. And indeed, when compared with Ms. Janet's topical, furious set the night before -- or even Byrne's set earlier in the day, which closed with an absolutely incendiary cover of Janelle Monae's protest song "Hell You Talmbout" -- seeing Killers frontman Brandon Flowers hamming it up as "The Man" while playing keys behind a giant "male" symbol felt perhaps not the most urgent of performances. 

However, if The Killers are meant to lose their status as festival headliners, it's pretty clear it'll have to be pried from Flowers' cold, dead hands first. He continues to front the band the way he always has: like they're the biggest band in the world, and that being the biggest rock band in the world is as meaningful now as it was in 20 or 40 years ago. And even though The Killers were legitimately headlining a major festival on Sunday, they still played like they were auditioning for an even greater assignment, a band that faked it until they made it and now doesn't seem to know how to stop trying to prove themselves. 

Perhaps the Killers' greatest live strength is their ability to make it seem like they have more hits than they really have, and that those hits were much bigger than they really were. Few outside of the band's faithful would recognize "The Way It Was," a deep cut from 2012's Battle Born, but the band still played up its performance with extended vamp and call-and-response sections, like it had been marinating on FM radio as long as "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." "Smile Like You Mean It" was the smallest of the four alternative radio singles off 2004 debut Hot Fuss, but when Flowers' initial tease of the song's trademark synth hook got garbled in the mix, he very purposefully re-teased it for maximum audience scintillation, like it was his version of the "Satisfaction" riff. And while "All These Things That I've Done" was fairly popular in its time and has endured as one of the band's classics, the list of songs that can justify their singer standing silent in silhouette as the opening chord blares continuously in the background -- as Flowers did for about two hype-building minutes before finally delivering the opening lyric to "Things" -- is not a long one. 

This may all sound like criticism, and perhaps objectively speaking, it should be. But The Killers' self-belief is so strong that it's virtually impossible not to drink the Kool-Aid yourself while watching. Your brain may recognize some of the machinations at work, but once you open your heart to their prodigiously studied, masterfully delivered stadium rock -- there's a reason this stuff ruled the American mainstream for decades and decades, after all -- your head doesn't stand a chance. And Flowers leads the way like he's fronting a Killers tribute band, stretching his vocals, his body, and his sense of good taste to their absolute breaking points, determined to never let any imitator be more Brandon Flowers than he himself. The band occasionally misses having a natural foil to play Clarence or Stevie to his Bruce -- drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. is the lone other original Killer in this touring iteration of the group, and there's only so much he can do from behind his set -- but Flowers does a good enough job keeping the focus on the songs that his Rock Star self-punctuation never becomes overbearing. 

And the Panorama crowd (a much larger turnout on Sunday than Saturday) seemed more than willing to play their part in The Killers' rock and roll fantasy, engaging in every singalong, whipping out their phones-as-lighters upon Flowers' request, and rapturously cheering on a Florida teen selected to play drums on 2007 single "For Reasons Unknown" (a recent live tradition for the band, though treated like a random bout of wish-granting last night). And the biggest songs got the response the band would've hoped for: When the opening ca-chunks of main set ender "When You Were Young" gave way to the primary riff, the festival started jumping like the drop to "We Found Love" had just hit, and encore "Mr. Brightside" -- the band's unquestionable entry to the all-time rock canon, essentially the post-millennial "Wonderwall" at this point -- practically served as its own closing fireworks display. Tellingly, only two songs were played off last September's Wonderful Wonderful album, which was never once mentioned, by name or otherwise. It gave the band a new pair of hits to add to their set, and now its work here is done. 

Was it all enough for The Killers to redeem a rough weekend for Panorama? Perhaps. The Killers didn't make a case for being any more timely in 2018 than you'd think -- you're probably not going to see many attendees next year dressed in tribute to Flowers' spangled red suit, like you saw a bevy of attendees wearing Frank Ocean's "be quiet" T-shirt from last Panorama this year. But as the frontman himself pointed out onstage, his band is The Killers, and their job first and foremost is to turn their crowd into The Victims. And on those grounds, they certainly slayed. 

Festivals 2018