Stage left, an acoustic guitar’s been set up on a stand so it’s ready to play without needing to be picked up. During new song Mirrors, the opener of Rival Sons‘ blistering Roundhouse return, Scott Holiday strums it for a total of probably 30 seconds. And as soon as he’s done, the song not yet finished, his tech carries it off. That’s one guitar being lugged around the world for less than half a minute of music. Most other bands probably wouldn’t have bothered with that bit, had the keyboard player fill the gap with something, or (more likely) put it on a backing track.
But not Rival Sons. That tiny, seemingly inconsequential, detail doesn’t just show how much they care about getting things right. Like tonight’s drum and guitar solos (or Holiday’s double-necked instrument), it’s one of many reminders that they carry the spirit of bonafide classic rock bands. Which isn’t to say they’re stuck in the past; just that they revel in sweaty, gritty, show-offy rock ‘n’ roll.
Jay Buchanan, dressed in red trousers and matching waistcoat, leads from the front. He prowls the stage as if he’s the tiger on the backdrop, shakes his ass (and tambourine), poses like only a frontman can, and engages the crowd with between-song conversation that actually says something (speaking about everything from the current political turmoil to the band’s first London gig at The Barfly more than a decade ago). Most importantly, though, he sings astonishingly well, whether hammering full-throated lines like “I’m electric”, belting out the blues on Feral Roots, or going full gospel during a spine-tingling Shooting Stars (with the Roundhouse audience providing backing vocals and perfectly synchronised handclap percussion).
Behind him, Holiday and drummer Mike Miley are especially impressive. The guitarist, who seemingly has a different instrument for every song, alternates effortlessly between chunky riffs and nimble solos (like on Do Your Worst or Pressure And Time) and goes to improv town during the extended solo that playfully and skilfully takes Face Of Light to its limit. Miley is equally adept at playing to the song. On Where I’ve Been, introduced by Buchanan with a heartfelt reflection on self-forgiveness, he balances the restraint of the verses with elaborate fills that match the swelling choruses (as Buchanan pleads “How could you love me?” and Holiday’s guitar cries). On Open My Eyes, the very next song, his drums sound not unlike those on When The Levee Breaks before evolving into a drum solo that’s as much about power and flair as subtlety. And on Keep On Swinging he does just that, really driving home the night’s final track.
It’s one of Rival Sons’ signature songs in a set stuffed with much more than just classics; the band have not one but two albums to promote. Since their last London gig 15 months ago they’ve released Darkfighter, with Lightbringer due a week after this show. Both collections serve up plenty of highlights tonight. From the former, the anthemic Mirrors is all about light and shade, Rapture quite simply soars (“Sing it loud, I do believe / I’m becoming what I’m meant to be”), future live staple Bird In The Hand is the band at their foot-stomping best, and the moody, brooding, brilliant Darkside sounds like nothing else in their catalogue: downright dangerous and desperate.
Appropriately the offerings from Lightbringer are brighter. Sweet Life fizzes like Coke out of a shaken bottle, while the rousing Mercy and shimmering Mosaic (making their live debuts tonight) are the kind of instantly relatable songs that much of the audience are singing loudly by the time the second chorus rolls around. Moments like that, when paired with Rival Sons‘ flair for performance, are what make live gigs magical.
Review of Rival Sons at Roundhouse on 13th October 2023 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed.