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Review: Kings of Leon headline KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas

This year’s Grammy nominations may be as muddled as usual, but the Recording Academy sent at least one straightforward message with the picks it announced Friday night: Rock music didn’t matter in 2013.

No rock albums made the shortlist for the Grammys’ flagship album of the year prize, nor is a rock act among the nominees for best new artist; the rock performance category, meanwhile, is padded with a cut from a live disc documenting Led Zeppelin’s one-off reunion gig.

Compare that to 2012, when Jack White, the Black Keys and Mumford & Sons crowded the album category.

PHOTOS: KROQ-FM's Almost Acoustic Christmas 2013

Yet if the academy has decided that rock is dead, its verdict didn’t hold much sway Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium, where L.A.’s KROQ-FM (106.7) presented the first night of its annual Almost Acoustic Christmas extravaganza.

Here a very rowdy capacity crowd had gathered to watch nine bands – including Kings of Leon, Vampire Weekend and Queens of the Stone Age – bash through five hours of songs filled with fuzzy guitars set to galloping beats. (Arcade Fire, Phoenix and Lorde are among the acts scheduled to perform Sunday night.)

“You know that I could use somebody,” sang Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon, and at the Shrine he had no shortage of enthusiastic somebodys to reassure him of his value.

Alas, the crowd was too kind.

Though they sounded OK in their big hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire,” both more or less foolproof, Kings of Leon were appallingly dull in Saturday’s headlining slot, a boring (and bored-looking) outfit with none of the live-wire intensity that Followill and his mates used to project.

In September the group released “Mechanical Bull,” its first album following a hiatus triggered in part by frayed relations within the band, which is made up of three brothers and a cousin. But here it wasn’t at all apparent that things have improved among the Followills, as they churned out “Radioactive” and the new record’s “Supersoaker” while barely glancing at one another.

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“Mechanical” is right.

AFI was more energetic but equally uninspiring in its performance, which pulled from the long-running California quartet’s recently released “Burials.” A decade ago, AFI was honing a sometimes-thrilling mixture of punk thrash and goth romance, but at Acoustic Christmas it merely barreled through its set, the band’s old dynamism reduced to an insistent whine, even in its vintage hit “Miss Murder.”

More encouraging sounds – and reason, perhaps, to believe that rock can still make an impact – came from Vampire Weekend, the deeply clever New York City band whose latest album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” is one of the year’s most acclaimed. (It’s up for the alternative music Grammy.)

On Saturday, Drake’s song “Worst Behavior” blasted from the Shrine’s speakers as the band arrived onstage, and that was just one sign that Vampire Weekend was looking beyond rock’s usual borders; its set pulled from rap, reggae and African pop as Ezra Koenig floated his boyish vocals over arrangements that mixed strummy acoustic guitar with percolating machine beats.

Fifties-rebel cool in a denim jacket with the collar turned up, Koenig in “Diane Young” led his bandmates through a synthed-up revamp of early rock à la Buddy Holly – “Peggy Sue” for the Age of Spotify.

Alex Turner of England’s Arctic Monkeys had a similar look, with a greaser’s pompadour and hip-hugging jeans. And his band’s set likewise juiced old forms, pairing Black Sabbath-style guitar licks with slowed-down grooves out of hip-hop and R&B; it was as sensual as it was menacing.

Ditto Queens of the Stone Age, whose frontman Josh Homme has served lately as a kind of spirit guide for Arctic Monkeys. At the Shrine he sang merrily about drug use – “nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol,” as he put it specifically in “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” – while the rest of the group found inventive ways to give heavy metal a feeling of luxury.

“We’re the drunkest band on the lineup,” Homme said by way of introduction, and at this the audience roared its approval once again – in this case cheering an act with a clear sense of purpose.

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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