A Rival Sons album showcases their take on rock - warranting comparisons to Led Zeppelin, the Doors, or contemporaries like The Raconteurs. But don't worry about Rival Sons' ability to set themselves apart - just catch one of their shows.
Kicking the night off with the first track on their latest release, Hollow Bones, Rival Sons wastes no time indulging their audience with fist-pounding, straight-forward rock anthems. It's clear right from the gate that there is no drop-off in quality with their live performance. These guys are at the top of their game. "Hollow Bones Pt.1" is a great opener, and the energy stays high as they roll through Hollow Bones tracks "Thundering Voices" and "Tied Up", followed by the 2014 single "Electric Man."
The next song, "Secret", instantly becomes one of the night's many highlights. The swinging groove reminds me of Led Zeppelin's fantastic rendition of "How Many More Times." And as this happens to be my personal favorite Led Zeppelin song, I could not dig it more.
The comparisons don't stop there. Rival Sons performs the song well past its 4:41 run time on the album, with striking Robert Plant-esque pause breaks from vocalist Jay Buchanan. The improvisational tradeoffs between Buchanan and guitarist Scott Holiday may be the closest I'll ever get to witnessing what Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did on stage forty years ago.
Rival Sons takes it down a notch to play "Jordan", the first ballad of the night. I was curious to see if the transition would unmask any sloppiness that may have been hiding within the heavier rock tunes, and was greatly impressed (though not surprised) when Rival Sons displays that they are just as tight on the ballads. With stand-out performances from bassist Dave Beste and drummer Mike Miley, the strong rhythm section patiently leads the band to a well-deserved crescendo, featuring stand out harmonies from Beste and keyboard player Todd Ögren-Brooks.
As the rest of the band leaves the stage, Holiday straps on his red Fender Jazzmaster, and joins Buchanan in a mournful, traditional blues piece that makes one think of Robert Johnson or Mississippi Fred McDowell. This break shows that Rival Sons' influences go beyond classic rock, and into American music's long-stretched roots.
"Torture" yanks the audience back into the action, complete with crowd sing-a-long parts and call-backs to the rock anthems that began the set. "Face of Light" is a song of reflection and resolve; and as Buchanan puts it, is about "your children making you want to be a better man." "Tell Me Something" sounds like it should be featured in the latest action movie, so it comes as no surprise when I later find out that Rival Sons were on the soundtrack for the 2011 action movie Real Steel. And "Open My Eyes" is, without question, the kind of song you can imagine listening to while driving through a desert highway in Arizona.
Rival Sons set the stage for "Open My Eyes" with a insane guitar solo from Holiday. He cuts from blues shuffles into straight shredding and doesn't skip a beat. And speaking of beat, "Open My Eyes" is followed by Miley getting his own shot at captivating the audience with a blistering six minute drum solo that would get John Bonham's nod of approval.
Before playing "Hollow Bones Pt.2", Buchanan pauses to explain that the song started out as a free form jam before becoming a "religious song of praise", and is "about being lost and getting found." The song begins slowly with a half-time groove which allows Buchanan's vocals to rise above the music. And for the first time tonight, I find the music taking a backseat to the lyrics, as if to say, "Hey, pay attention to this part." It's a long song; complete with an extended period of improvised guitar soloing before exploding into badass "hallelujahs."
With the crowd eager to join in on one last anthem, Buchanan takes a moment to thank the venue crew; their tour manager: the drum and guitar techs; the bus driver; and the house engineer before doing their own band introductions. It's a great moment and gets rounds of applause at each recognition made. Rival Sons then lays into their closer, "Keep On Swinging", and the crowd sings out "I keep my head down/But I keep on swingin'" as if it were their last words. So many songs could be great high points to end on - this was the perfect one.
It's difficult to stand out in rock. A Rival Sons concert makes you listen to rock music with fresh ears. Their performance takes their excellent studio recordings, and makes them better; and isn't that the sign of a great band? Rival Sons are a classic good time -a time not soon forgotten.
- review by Justin Christensen