Monday, April 18, 2005 | 8:22 a.m.
I first saw the Killers perform in August 2003, as an opening act for England's the Libertines at the Huntridge Theatre.
A crowd numbering less than 200 watched the Las Vegas band that night, and far fewer bothered to pay attention to their set.
Flash forward 20 months, and it's still mind-boggling just how far the Killers have come in such a short time.
The honors have been rolling in: three Grammy nominations, a stint on "Saturday Night Live," a fashion spread in GQ. How about three straight weeks at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, nearly a full year after the U.S. release of debut album "Hot Fuss"?
Friday night, the conquering heroes returned home for a concert at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. And the show, which sold out weeks ago, was every bit the antithesis of that Huntridge gig I caught.
This time, diehard fans lined up hours early, then crowded around the pit at the foot of the stage.
Girls screamed when the lights went down. They screamed when vocalist Brandon Flowers sang his first words. They screamed each time they recognized the intro to a song.
Even the guys danced, and not just the ones trying to impress their dates. Big, tough-looking dudes bounced around and pumped their fists to the anthemic keyboard section of opener "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine."
And everyone sang every word to just about every song the Killers played, from hits "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside" to semi-obscure B-side "Under the Gun" and U.K.-only album track "Indie Rock & Roll."
The rock band's rapid rise to prominence in an era dominated by R&B, hip-hop, country and pop has been surprising. That they've emerged from the long ignored Las Vegas music scene is borderline unbelievable.
So just how have the Killers met with such success? There's no denying timing had a lot to do with it. Nostalgia for the '80s burns brightly, and after the grunge and rap-metal dominated rock scene of the 1990s, music fans are after upbeat, catchy tunes once again.
Primarily, though, the Killers have made it big thanks to their songs. Teens on online message boards might gush over the four musicians' looks, but had "Hot Fuss" not been filled with well-crafted, fun, singalong songs, no one would bother arguing over which Killer is the cutest.
A crowd of around 1,800 -- ranging from packs of 10-year-old girls to couples in their 30s -- showed up because of those songs Friday night, and the Killers didn't let them down.
The band sounded better than it did in September at the House of Blues. Flowers' voice filled the room and Dave Keuning's guitar riffs glided above Mark Stoermer's rumbling basslines and Ronnie Vannucci's steady drumming.
Arriving onstage after a full recording of Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never," the Killers also appeared far more comfortable before their hometown fans than they did in their first return last year.
"Let's see what we have here, Las Vegas," Flowers said early on. "I see some familiar faces tonight. We're really happy to be home."
The Killers played nine of 11 tracks from "Hot Fuss," omitting only "Believe Me Natalie" and "Everything Will Be All Right."
Predictably, the singles went over best with the crowd, particularly "Mr. Brightside," the song that first got the band noticed, and ultimately signed to British label Lizard King Records.
The rest of the night's fare was also received warmly by the audience, with energy remaining high during albums cuts "Change Your Mind," "Andy, You're a Star" and "Midnight Show."
The set's two new cuts -- titled "Where Is She?" and "Stereo of Lies," according to Flowers -- weren't nearly as successful.
The first shimmered a bit like the Cure, while the second's jagged approach recalled Franz Ferdinand. But neither delivered a catchy hook or an especially memorable chorus.
Fortunately, the band has plenty of time to work out the kinks before recording its sophomore album later this year.
The Killers' stage show, meanwhile, continues to improve gradually.
Flowers, decked out in a pink leather jacket and a trace of eyeliner, still appeared uncertain how to occupy himself when he wasn't behind his keyboard, opting mainly for robotic hand motions and steely-eyed stares into the crowd.
Stoermer, on the other hand, was far more animated than in previous appearances. The once pillar-like bassist wandered around and even boogied a little as he played his instrument, the apparent result of months of nonstop touring.
My only complaint is that the Killers' shows continue to feel a bit short. This one clocked in at 55 minutes, including a break before a two-song encore featuring "On Top" and "All These Things That I've Done."
The band might consider adding a cover tune to its repertoire, or digging up another early rarity or two to fill things out.
Before long, though, it shouldn't be an issue. A second disc will nearly double the Killers' catalog, providing ample material for 65- or 75-minute performances.
Whether that follow-up album will match the triumph of "Hot Fuss," of course, will be the question on everyone's minds as the Las Vegans' young career moves into its next phase.