The end of the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s first weekend seemed scripted from the moment the Killers were announced as the Sunday headliner on the American Express Stage: The Las Vegas rock band known for hard-hitting anthems would send everyone home with a grand finale of their all-time biggest hit, “Mr. Brightside.”
It took about five minutes for Brandon Flowers and his bandmates to tear that page out of the playbook. After opening with an explosive rendition of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl” — following suit with one of the weekend’s biggest trends — the band doubled down by ripping straight into “Mr. Brightside” as their second song. How to follow that? Did they overplay their hand up front?
Not at all, it turns out. The one-two punch was so exhilarating that it set the tone for a terrific last hour-and-a-half of the fest, but in truth, the Killers have a pretty deep catalog after 15 years together. “Mr. Brightside” may have rightfully put the band on the map when their debut album “Hot Fuss” came out in 2004, but they have other songs that are even better, and that made it easy to keep the momentum going.
The show seemed cathartic for the band, which was performing for the first time since 58 people died when a country music festival in their hometown became the site of a horrific mass shooting a week ago. The band was flying home from Australia at the time.
During a break in “The Way It Was,” the Killers’ fourth song, Flowers expressed solidarity with the band’s fans. “Coming from Las Vegas, and as musicians, I want to say thank you,” he said. “Don’t you ever let any (expletive) get in the way of doing what you want to do.”
The band’s fans returned that spirit in kind. They sang along loud and clear when “Smile Like You Mean It,” another favorite from “Hot Fuss,” followed “The Way It Was.” They erupted ecstatically when “Human,” arguably the Killers’ best pop song, turned up a little later, one of three selections from the band’s underrated 2008 album “Day & Age.”
Another tune from that record, “A Dustland Fairytale,” didn’t generate quite the same crowd response, but it might be the band’s crowning achievement, almost cinematic in its piano-driven emotional sweep. They followed that with another Petty song, this time keeping it quiet for a stripped down take on “The Waiting.” The Killers’ brand of rock is so grandiose and ambitious that one might not have pegged them as big fans of Petty, but Flowers said the icon’s death hit him hard. “We’re grateful for all he did,” he added graciously.
From there, it was a hard sprint to the finish, through crowd-favorites “Read My Mind” and “Runaways” (from 2006’s “Sam’s Town” and 2012’s “Battle Born,” respectively) and headlong into “All These Things That I’ve Done.” Against the odds, it was an even more powerful set-closer than “Mr. Brightside” would have been: The audience spontaneously and repeatedly chanted its key line, “I got soul but I’m not a soldier,” needing no cue from Flowers.
The band’s lone misstep was the first song of the encore. “The Man,” the lead single from the band’s new record, is embarrassingly bad, a machismo brag that might be intended as tongue-in-cheek but doesn’t come across that way. It’s almost painful to hear a lyricist of Flowers’ caliber sing about being “USDA certified lean.”
The red flag is right there in the new album’s credits: No less than 14 co-writers are credited on the tune, a sure sign of a song that has been beaten to death by committee. (The Killers had never done that before, and hopefully never will again.) If any further proof were needed, just listen to the crowd: The thousands who sang along without prompting on many songs throughout the night had comparatively much less connection to “The Man,” despite the promotional push it has received.
The new album’s “Run for Cover,” a much stronger song with an unfortunate title under the circumstances (it’s a relationship metaphor), fared better mid-set. A minor surprise: Those were the only two songs from the new album to be played. “Wonderful Wonderful” hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last week, the first Killers album ever to do so.
Another “Hot Fuss” song (“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”) and the “Sam’s Town” selection “When You Were Young,” the band’s second-highest-charting single after “Mr. Brightside,” filled out the encore of a remarkably solid show. If the Killers don’t quite have the longevity of recent-past ACL Fest rock headliners such as Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and Radiohead, they proved more than worthy of their big-stage moment, a fitting finale to an emotional first weekend in Zilker Park.