**Article Written By Mr. Sam Presley III. Sam is a native of New York and long-time friend of both myself and Jonathan Newsome.
Hazard, Kentucky – The Bible Belt encompasses the small town of Hazard, Kentucky. Religion runs deep and strong in the beautiful mountains in which the village is situated, and it is incorporated into the lives of the residents from birth. The people are salt of the earth types; hard working, good neighbors, hospitable, and generous with a kind word for those fortunate enough to make their acquaintance. This is God’s country. Winding roads traversing mountain sides with majestic views are the norm. Small houses of worship line the way, seeming to sprout from the mountains like the trees that manage to find purchase in the exposed bedrock. Faith is worn as a badge of honor in these parts.
It’s in this setting that music fans have made a pilgrimage to The Forum on a drizzly Tuesday evening. It’s a beautiful small venue on Bulldog Lane with red, upholstered seating and a great sound system that doesn’t need to overpower those in attendance with volume. Some have traveled great distances for this opportunity to commune with the great power hidden within music. They have come from Canada, Georgia, New York, Nevada, California, Michigan, and New Jersey. The attraction is the soul lifting sound of a band from Long Beach, California with the seemingly Biblically inspired moniker of Rival Sons.
The fans begin arriving early. It’s not your usual crowd for a rock concert. Among those wearing the typical shirts with band logos are others clothed for a night at the theater in a major city. Beautiful dresses and button-down shirts are plentiful, and the atmosphere is one of anticipation of a revival for the soul. It’s joyful. The crowd is populated with friends who have only known each other from social media finally meeting for the first time.Smiles and laughter are in abundance as the people partake of beverages and purchase shirts and albums in the lobby.
The doors open at 7:00 and the people eagerly enter the room. Howie Pyro welcomes them with the sound of his collection of rare 45’s. Clips from forgotten movies of the fifties and sixties illustrate the walls on either side of the seating as the sounds of rarely heard, but glorious, garage rock fill the air. It’s the perfect welcome for like-minded souls, a blend of kitsch and earnestness with a youthful exuberance that sets the tone perfectly for what is to come.
Soon, the recorded sound and video projections give way to a duo from New York City. The London Souls take their places on stage, Tash Neal on guitar and vocals in a striped muscle shirt and Chris St. Hilaire behind his kit with oversized sunglasses, and the live music portion of the night begins.
Their sound is blues based, with elements of funk and soul mixed in. At times, it’s a cousin to Lenny Kravitz’s fine work from the nineties. Having supported acts such as The Black Crowes and Tedeschi Trucks Band, these gentlemen have chops. Since The Black Keys, The White Stripes rose to prominence, duos have become a small trend in the rock world. Rarely do those undertaking this route rise and live up to the fuller sound of their better known forebears. The London Souls are the exception. They are a band in the truest sense. The low end doesn’t suffer from lack of a bassist and there is no overcompensation with flash lacking substance. They bring the goods and have those on hand captivated with their sound within minutes. It’s rock and roll you can groove to. The people appreciate their hard work and talent and reward them with full-throated cheers throughout their set.
Ennio Morricone’s theme from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” soon fills the venue. The crowd is hushed as Rival Sons emerge from backstage one at a time, with our preacher for the evening, Jay Buchanan, filing out last. The service is about to begin.
The band launches their sermon with the first song from their latest album, “Hollow Bones”. The fuzzy, distorted guitar of Scott Holiday packs a wallop and Jay’s vocals are capable of finding the back of the lobby without amplification. Dave Beste and Mike Miley are providing the rhythmic foundation with enough punch to make Rocky Marciano jealous. This is why so many have come from all over the nation to be here on this night.
“Thundering Voices” is up next. The Fuzzlord has crafted a riff for this song that guitar legends have a right to envy. The chorus is as catchy as they come, and voices in the crowd are thundering along with Jay by the time he hits his portion with a wail like a wildcat.
“Tied Up”, “Electric Man”, and “Secret” follow, with the latter’s line “…bring me a jar full of shine…” eliciting a hardy response for the mention of the local sacrament.
Rival Sons – “Electric Man” in Hazard:
By now, the service is well under way and the crowd is fully engaged, swaying like snake handlers and enraptured by the overwhelming feeling of connectedness with this band. It’s obvious that Rival Sons are leading their tribe willingly through the desolate desert of today’s pop music and headed for the promised land of rock and roll where feedback, powerful drumming and vocals to part a sea rain down like manna from heaven.
The band’s 2012 breakthrough, “Pressure and Time”, is next and it has aged like the finest wine. It’s still fresh, with a stuttering, unfinished riff that gets pounded into one’s brain by a relentlessly complimentary bass and drum. It’s as ubiquitous at a Sons show as a John 3:16 sign held aloft in the stands of a University of Kentucky football game.
The band is aware of the makeup of their audience, and as they take time to catch their collective breath and gulp a quick drink, Jay steps up to the microphone and gives thanks for the blessing of having fans of such faith that they have made the journey to this little burg. Anyone in attendance can tell it’s a heartfelt sentiment and that the band has been pushing their formidable abilities to the limits in a miraculous display of true appreciation. A gifted storyteller, Jay ties the band’s gratitude into the story of the origins of their universally accessible ballad, “Jordan”. This is becoming a show that nobody will forget. As the song begins, the emotions pour forth, and numerous faces can be seen with tears streaming down their cheeks like the waters of the titular river, such is the impact of the beauty of the lyrics.
“Face of Light” is a song usually dedicated to Jay’s son. On this night it goes out to all of their children. In the middle of the song, they add a rendition of “Sacred Tongue” from the EP performed with only guitar and vocals. It’s a seamless stitching together of two delicate fabrics to produce a magnificent tapestry of faith and familial bonds.
It’s around this portion of the homily that our preacher has disappeared briefly, having gone behind the stage curtain to exchange his black vestments for a choir robe in the local school colors of blue and yellow. The preacher has joined the chorus, and he is greeted with a sustained cheer of approval from his congregation. In turn, he will be joined in this costume change by Todd, Dave, and Scott as well. Presumably, the long and loose fitting sleeves would have impeded Mike’s ability to wield his sticks properly or he may have joined them. In any case, the transformation is complete. It’s no longer a simple concert. It’s now the Sacred Church of the Rock and the Roll, and it’s filled with a holy feeling of love and contentment that is consumed as a Eucharist by the band and audience alike.
The show continues on, with the band extending the set by adding songs not on their original set list. They give thanks for the tireless toil of our host, Greg Napier, by playing the fan favorite “Memphis Sun” in his honor. The rollicking “Belle Starr” gallops into the mix of “Tell Me Something” and “Torture”. It’s a sonic feast fit for any follower of brother Alan Freed.
“Open My Eyes” had the crowd once again singing along.
“Hollow Bones, Part 2” was stretched to its full length and wrapped as tightly as the Shroud of Turin. It’s become an epic relic that the faithful revere for its tempo changes and deeply contemplative lyrics.
The sermon comes to a close with the determined hope and optimism of “Keep On Swinging”. It’s a fitting way to end. No need for an encore as everyone has slaked their thirsts for the wondrous power of hard hitting rock and roll with feeling behind it. It’s an authenticity so often lacking in today’s cookie cutter world of plastic pop music, and Rival Sons provided it in abundance.
The audience slowly departed the room to gather at the front of the building. The band gradually appear and graciously mingle with their followers, signing autographs, taking photos, and rekindling friendships with those they have met previously. This is a church whose leaders are as humble, hospitable, and hardworking as the residents of the little village in the mountains of Kentucky known as Hazard.
For more information about Rival Sons, check out their site here.