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Kings of Leon are ready to open for rock royalty

This question is making the rounds of the music industry: ''Do you think Kings of Leon are really worthy of being the opening act on the coming U2 tour?"

The answer -- after Sunday's electrifying set at the Paradise -- is yes. We won't know for sure until the Kings line up in front of U2 at the FleetCenter in late May, but if they can play with the regal force they showed at the Paradise, they should silence any skeptics.

There's no doubt that Kings of Leon are much better than they were two years ago when they were a flavor-of-the-month act whose back story won more headlines than their music. The three Followill brothers were raised by their Pentecostal preacher dad, Leon, and were shuttled around the Southern tent-revival circuit in his Oldsmobile before they rebelled and got into rock 'n' roll.

The Followills are still young (singer-guitarist Caleb is 25, drummer Nathan, 23, and bassist Jared, 18), but their new sophomore full-length CD, ''Aha Shake Heartbreak," testifies to some of the hedonistic highs and lows of their burgeoning rock-star life on the road. They even call it their ''hangover record."

There were no hangovers on Sunday, though -- only a high-energy romp through uncompromising garage-rock that recalled the days when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cheap Trick, and yes, U2 -- first rocked the Paradise. The Nashville-based Kings have shed some of the Southern influences (and the beards that got them compared with Southern rock bands) for a more driving, Brit-rock edge that now makes them seem like descendants of the Who. Newer songs such as ''Slow Night, So Long," the ironic ''Milk," the boiling ''Pistol of Fire," and the jolting ''Razz" all could have fit into the Who's ''The Kids Are Alright" soundtrack.

Sunday's sold-out Paradise audience ate it up. Young, breathless women pushed to the stage's edge, and the entire room had an electricity that let you know this was more of a Saturday blitz than a Sunday cool-down. Guitarist Matthew Followill (a first cousin to the brothers) played rippling solos like a young Mike Campbell of Petty's Heartbreakers.

Songs blistered forth in jagged bursts, building to a fierce velocity in the encore with ''Spiral Staircase." During the night, Caleb slammed his guitar with such power that he broke several strings. And these Kings had rebellion to spare, as Matthew and Jared even lit up cigarettes on the stage with an insouciance that suggested everyone should leave them be. In the end, the Kings had another roomful of willing, cheering subjects -- just as they'll probably have when they warm up for U2 in the bigger barns.

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