While "Kensington Heights" finds Constantines continuing in the direction of their previous LP, "Tournament of Hearts," that is, making albums with less of the tense energy that made their take on trad rock so exciting on 2003's "Shine a Light," the band still brings that desperate rock sound on stage. They came to the Rock & Roll Hotel with frequent touring partners Oakley Hall, a band which also finds itself mellowing for a more accessible sound rather than adhering to the alt-country they came out with. It happens. Many a band before has matured to more mellow territory. It might not be the sound that first brought them fans, but having two bands so talented on the same stage, the same night, makes Constantines/Oakley Hall tours don't-miss events.
Oakley Hall opened their set with the first song from their most recent LP, September's "I'll Follow You." That album doesn't punch as hard as their previous efforts, and it replaces some of the twang with pop, and the live version of "Marine Life" seemed to follow that path, lacking some of the energy of the album version. Its peaks didn't quite hit so high, though its cascading beauty remained in tact. But as such, it served as a nice, mellow table setter for the rest of the set. Quickly, the band recaptured the energy and tempo of classic alt-country. After three songs featuring the folky vocals of frontman/guitarist Pat Sullivan, Rachel Cox took over singing duties on "All the Way Down." Drenched in southern rock guitars, Cox sounded timid and unsure at first, but recovered to her full, strong and pretty voice in time for the terrific big roots rock climax -- probably the most exciting moment of the set. And Sullivan acknowledged as much when responding to cries from the crowd (muffled and inaudible but no doubt referencing how fetching she is).
"She can sing pretty good, too," Sullivan said. "She's got a new tattoo she might show you. Speaking of tattoos, we've got some temp tattoos at the merch table. I'm not even lying."
Cox ditched her guitar for keys for the next song, but continued singing strong. The keys, however, were drowned by the rest of the band. Sullivan's turn at the keys later proved much more fruitful for the music. Sadly, closing song "Having Fun Again" sounded like the least enjoyable song to play. Members of Constantines took the stage to join the band, and they stretched the "Gypsum Strings" cut into a jam, but there wasn't much about the jamming that warranted it. It was an unfortunate lazy ending to an otherwise alternately gritty and pretty set.
Despite the April release of "Kensington Heights," Constantines didn't show off much of that album. Often times, bands will play too much from the latest record, so this may be a good thing. Still, they didn't play enough from "Shine a Light" -- their masterpiece, so far. They went back to "Tournament of Hearts" for set opener "Hotline Operator." Like Oakley Hall, that song found them tip-toeing toward their heavier, faster rock and roll, but it was in full force by the end and carried on into the rest of the set. New track "Hard Feelings" is one of the heavier songs from "Kensington Heights," but it was a perfect example of the new direction, as again the tension didn't quite compare to earlier work, but the song still was a foot stomper and a fist pumper.
Constantines touched on new material a couple more times. "Million Star Hotel" was a better representation of the band's less muscular direction with a slow chorus and smoother edges dragging it off tempo. Likewise, "Shower of Stones" was mostly driving and catchy, but it also seemed to go on too long. Plus, as one of Steve Lambke's rare vocal leads, it was simply lacking. Bryan Webb's gravelly, dinosaur-rock rasp is as much an instrument for the band as his guitar, providing character and texture Lambke simply can't match, particularly in a live setting.
Despite those chinks in the armor, Constantines still put on one of the best modern trad rock sets you're likely to hear. While paying homage to their '70s heroes with their music, they still amped it enough not to be obvious. It's still a forward-thinking band. And while I would have preferred more material from "Shine a Light," the charging rendition of "Young Lions" was worthy of an arena setting, and the brooding but razor-sharp rocker "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)" was as harsh and darkly emotional as ever. And the band, while breaking occasionally from the rock and roll, pretty much kept raising it up a notch, as the set sort of crescendoed into the encore.