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The Strokes have lots of room to grow

LOWELL -- The buzz train known as the Strokes came somewhat off the rails on Friday. To start with, there were only 3,200 fans in attendance -- less than half a house at the Tsongas Arena. And those paltry numbers can't be blamed just on Halloween. The Strokes, despite their "rock savior" image in the media, haven't been living up to expectations at other box offices on this tour. This particular show should have been booked at Boston's Orpheum Theatre, where it would have sold out and people would not have been asking, "What ever happened?" to quote the title of a Strokes song.

The band at least compensated by playing a hard-driving set that showcased its retropunk/CBGB's-era strengths, but it almost destroyed that good will with a stupid comment at the end. "This is our last song and we don't do [expletive] encores," said sneering singer Julian Casablancas, whose New York arrogance was never more evident.

"Oh, the Strokes don't do encores? Who do they think they are?" a fan sitting near me said angrily. It didn't help that the title of the song was "Take It or Leave It." Some fans left it, as they started filing for the exits. They missed Casablancas diving into the crowd (the only time he did it), but they didn't seem to mind.

Maturity-wise, the Strokes have some growing to do. They also need to grow musically if they want to justify some of their press clippings. They are very good at a narrow segment of music -- that is, rhythmic, Velvet Underground-influenced rock that makes one think Lou Reed should get some of the royalties -- but they need more variety to pull off the move to bigger stages. (And they played for only about an hour and 10 minutes -- pretty wimpy for headliner status.)

There's no question, though, that the Strokes do have some great songs. The opening "What Ever Happened?" (there's that phrase again) had a thrilling Iggy Pop ride to it. "I wanna be beside her/ She wanna be admired," Casablancas sang with his patented touch of urban cynicism.

Other rock highlights were "Reptilia" (with a heavy dose of strobe lights -- the Strokes used more big-production lighting effects than expected), the '80s new wave of "The Modern Age," and the sheer euphoria of their earlier radio hit, "Last Nite."

The deep-voiced Casablancas could be charismatic even while just cradling the microphone and not moving, but he got into trouble when he slowed the tempo. He attempted a Bowie-esque croon on "Under Control" but ended up sounding whiny (and again self-important with the lines "I don't want to do it your way/ I don't want to give it to you, your way") It was also frustrating to see that half of his stage banter consisted of the F word. Was that supposed to be cool? Almost as cool as not doing encores, huh? Moral of the story: The Strokes have potential, but they haven't realized it yet.

The opening Kings of Leon -- the feral, early Stones-influenced band featuring three sons of an itinerant Southern preacher -- were edgy good fun. Singer Caleb Followill sounded at times like Jerry Lee Lewis in the bayou, at others like Mick Jagger cutting loose in pre-"Exile on Main St." days. The playfully erotic "Molly's Chambers" grabbed the crowd's attention, as did the primal "Holy Roller Novocaine." The band also sometimes rocked like a younger version of the Black Crowes -- and guitarist Matthew Followill slashed out rhythms like the Crowes' Rich Robinson. A fine set. (Another scheduled opener, Regina Spektor, a friend of the Strokes, canceled because of illness.)

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