In the slow cooling of the endless day of the Midnight Sun, Rival Sons performed at Bukta Open air Festival on one of only two European dates in their Summer schedule. They have been here several times before to this charming, welcoming festival set in a beautiful tree-lined enclosure on the edge of the water, skirted by the distant mountains of Kvaløya. They obviously like it here. (Check out the festival’s website here.)
They began with «Mirrors», which was an explosive introduction to the show and largely set the tone for what followed, with powerful soaring vocals from Jay Buchanan and searing guitar solos from Scott Holiday, characterised by his trademark guitar textures. Things got off to a slightly shaky start as the acoustic guitar needed for the softer sections was incorrectly tuned. They took it in their stride though, and no surprise because the band is in top form. It was a tight performance from start to finish, everyone very much in the right space. There followed a whistlestop tour through some of the band’s strongest material, with room left to showcase the new «Darkfighter» album, from which they played six songs. Towards the close, Buchanan reminded us that the next record «Lightbringer» is due in October, but sadly there was no debut for any of that material – we will have to wait.
The set was nicely contoured, keeping the pace up early with hits «Do Your Worst» from «Feral Roots» and «Electric Man» from «Great Western Valkyrie», which got the crowd going on an evening that was to become rapidly cooler as the late strands of the midnight sun crept round to the Northern end of Sandnessundet. «Bird in the Hand», one of the more conventional, lyrical pieces off the new album came next, with a heavier arrangement than on the record, and all the better for it. Holiday put in one of many perfectly executed guitar solos. Drummer Mike Miley is always a visible presence on stage on account of his physicality, and this evening was no exception. By the time we got to «Open My Eyes», it was apparent that he was keeping the band together very nicely. Justly, it was then time for the drum solo. It’s not spectacular, it’s not long, but it’s good that he gets a moment to hold the stage on his own.
The set eased into a gentle patch in the middle, no less intense in performance from Buchanan, who was pushing himself to deliver the vocal lines, occasionally not reaching the notes he was searching for. «Rapture» from the new record was yet another chance for him to show off his range and power. It is a slower piece and it cued the change in pace. With this track as much as with the earlier hits, it was apparent that the audience were proper fans, not just turning up to see the headliner. Hands waved in time across the first twenty rows or so and they joined in for the second verse. They knew the new material.
That was followed by «Feral Roots», which went down very well, and here we saw Miley in a more subtle role, with musical fills and patterns behind the verses that showed he is more than just the band’s charismatic powerhouse and metronome. Here the band took the time to explore this song a little, breaking it down into a jam, doubling the length of it. Their broader musicianship was on show, with Holiday working guitar lines around the main theme of the melody with Miley and Dave Beste (bass) following his lead, stepping in and out, keeping the dance going. Buchanan was there too – he is not just the vocalist, after all – laying down the chords on the acoustic guitar, giving the improvisation some shape. Holiday then switched to the twelve-string part of his double neck, more obviously evoking the theme, and the song slowed and softened beautifully to a close. You’d think this would be the highlight, but there was better to come.
«This next one is for you», said Buchanan, introducing «Face of Light», the only track from «Pressure and Time» – the title track was perhaps the only notable omission, given the colour of the whole set. The song broke in the middle to give Holiday a moment for a longer extemporisation, consisting of long blues licks and lines, cleaner than in other passages and with heavy delay for atmosphere and to fill out the sound. It was good stuff, but he’s on stronger ground with his in-song solos, which were consistently good and never slavish performances of the album versions. That was followed by «Nobody Wants to Die», which was a return to early energy levels, Buchanan throwing himself into the vocals and Holiday providing yet another blistering solo. The quality of the writing on the new album is apparent from how easily the pieces stand up live and give the same intensity as they carried from the studio onto the record or more.
An acoustic performance of «Shooting Stars» marked the turning point of the set, a moment of relative calm before the final storm. This is a piece which stands or falls on the strength – the earnest – of the vocals on any given day and this evening Buchanan nailed it. We all paused for breath after singing along. Then – «Darkside». If this piece has impact on the record, it has more live. For the undersigned, if there was a stand-out moment in this impressive set, it was this. The arrangement was subtly different, with more texture in the quieter passages, and even some syncopated electronic drums on the second verse which were an interesting change. However, the heart of it, the grinding, gut-wrenching guitar riff which is the bedrock of the piece, was huge. Buchanan remained fearless with his vocals here, reaching for the highest notes when «there are no promises to keep any more».
Two more bursts of energy took us to the end – a fast-paced rendition of «Horses Breath» from «Darkfighter», and then «Keep on Swinging» from 2012’s «Head Down», a shameless crowd-pleaser which served as a kind of encore without the ritual of leaving the stage. The audience had thinned out by then, with the temperature dropping (Did someone say «D’e ikkje dårlig vær»?), but those who remained gave all they had, singing along with Buchanan till the bitter end.
They had packed a lot of energy and commitment into this short set and given a very strong and consistently good performance marked by the quality of the new material and how well they played it. Their visit to Oslo in November can’t come soon enough. (Check out our interview with Jay Buchanan in the current issue here!) 5/6
Text: Alex Maines
Photography: Anne-Marie Forker