Over an hour before the doors opened for Rival Sons, the queue was building outside The Junction in Cambridge. There were some familiar faces of fans who had followed the band to other cities on their brief tour through the UK. Northern Irish artist Pat Dam Smyth opened for the Sons, having played with them a few days before in Sheffield, with backing vocalist and percussionist Chris McComish. At first Smyth seemed an unusual choice to support such a high octane rock and roll band, as the bulk of his material is a low vocal, lyrical story, powered along by the drum beat, like the slow, deliberate "Set In Stone".
But part way through their half-hour set, Pat leant into the performance and launched into "Friends", with guitar tones reminiscent of John Lennon and a beat the room could groove to. Then it clicked - it is the artistry of Pat Dam Smyth that makes them a great fit for Rival Sons, Smyth’s honest lyrics and soulful voice is a feast for any music fan.
There is a unique camaraderie amongst Rival Sons fans, many of those along the front row knew each other from previous tours, and one fan even had a necklace made up of no fewer than 5 picks he had collected over the years from the guitarist, Scott Holiday, and bassist Dave Beste.
The whistling and jangling guitar of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" signalled the arrival of Rival Sons onto the stage, who cooly and calmly took their positions, whilst welcomed by the full-to-capacity crowd with raucous cheers until the first notes of "Hollow Bones Pt.1" were played. The Sons continued with "Tied Up" and "Thundering Voices", both from their latest album Hollow Bones, and aside from a quick welcome by singer Jay Buchanan, it was straight into older setlist staples including "Electric Man" and "Pressure and Time". That week Rival Sons were finishing up the 13 month long, "The End" Tour with Black Sabbath, whose shows have seen them play to 1.6 million people. It’s a far cry from the small club in Cambridge, but Buchanan made a point of saying how much they have missed these more intimate gigs, and that the band can’t wait to get back to playing their own headline shows (whilst being hugely grateful for the opportunity with Sabbath).
The performance was a 90-minute long extravaganza, adding in some material that hasn’t seen the bright lights of the stage for a while, including what I expect to be a very impromptu "Memphis Sun" off the back of one of Holiday’s solos. Despite such a showcase, I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more animated, as Cambridge was the first date on their headline tour to sell out. One frustrated fan even shouted at people to get moving, which clearly unsettled the band who were giving it their all. Buchanan paused to take a breath, which mellowed the room, and introduced two songs which tackle difficult subjects of self-forgiveness and grief, leading into "Where I've Been" and "Fade Out", two deeply personal songs which had many of the audience in tears, such is the power of the writing.
The final songs spanned four albums, with the usually unstoppable "Torture" not receiving a crowd encore; such was the theme of the night - quiet appreciation by the audience. I hasten to add, this is not a negative comment, Rival Sons attracts such a diverse listenership, no one gig is the same, as their previous show in Sheffield had been a very hands-on, riotous experience. Rival Sons are a band of whom it is often said should be much bigger than they currently are, but with 5 years of non-stop touring such hard work is paying off in sell-out shows and accolades by names such as Jimmy Page, and of course Sabbath, who hand picked the Sons to support them on their final tour.