The Joy Formidable At The Firebird, 9/21/11: Review and Setlist
The Joy Formidable | US Royalty
Photos by Diana Benanti
September 21, 2011
This is the time to see a band. The Joy Formidable is still pie-eyed and loving it, and there's a new single around every bend. The band is still in love with its luck, and there is no way to not fall in love with the trio right back.
Openers US Royalty offered a very now juxtaposition of pro-America rock songs with all the foppish styling of Vince Noir. Curdled Zeppelin hooks, Skynyrd solos and meaningless lyrics referencing American souls and getting "wild in the streets" of America. Patriotism, after all, is one of the cheapest, most immediate gut-punches, lying somewhere on the easy application spectrum between "Mom" and "lower taxes." That kind of rhetoric might get you elected, but it doesn't fly with the thinking man right now. Guys, know you're from D.C. and all, but we're kind of off the whole pro-America thing for the time being. Unless you're solving the debt crisis in song or pleading to give peace a chance, we're not really buying, but check back later because at the end of the day we're still capitalist pigs. But they were fun and harmless and it seems petty to even mention it, but referring to this great "Nashville" crowd not once but twice was just weird and unfortunate. Lead singer John Thornley didn't win any points for his lame cover "Nashville wasn't this fun."
What US Royalty lacked in authenticity, the Joy Formidable fully made up for with guileless energy. The trio hurtled through most of its quite excellent studio debut The Big Roar with a perfectly curated setlist: a series of small rhythmic operas. Each song came to a geyser-like crescendo, hitting every emotional summit on the way up and barely pausing before crashing back down. Even the quiet parts were mostly perfunctory, as though they were trying to disprove a dearly worn bromide: what goes up must come down. But if it doesn't come down, it becomes grindcore, which is not entirely unwelcome in a dark club. The choruses have a Muse-like immediacy, the swirling rhythms a shoegaze headiness a la My Bloody Valentine, and, acoustically rendered, these could be mistaken for Eisley songs. But thankfully they're more Cocteau Twins sour than Eisley sweet.
Despite her name, Ritzy Bryan doesn't appear to be an heiress or socialite, just a chick from North Wales with arena-sized charisma and a ringing celebrity endorsement -- Dave Grohl, who's found plenty of ink spilled in his name this year. He famously tweeted his approval: "I would like to personally thank The Joy Formidable for writing the song of the year "Whirring". xxx Dave" before tapping the trio to play a number of east coast dates opening for the Foo Fighters this fall.
Every song was over the top, from the intense energy of "Cradle" to the glassy rock of "Austere," sawing metal edge of "Buoy." "Buoy" is so very Smashing Pumpkins, steeped in acrid, grunge informed guitar. Like on many of the songs, Bryan's icy voice was mostly lost for "The Greatest Light," but no matter, they were superfluous over the wall of noise, though her "happy for you" chant was evident regardless. The band's rejection of restraint is maintained by Matt Thomas and that dynamite drumming of his. Thomas showed his versatility at grinding out huge drum sounds; militant salvos, giant cymbal clatters and the deafening way he laid into the bass drum. Just watching the rippling vibrations on his skins was mesmerizing. But not as mesmeric as Bryan, who pulled faces and spun and sent flirty looks to all corners with cartoonish glee, her blunt platinum bob failing to obscure wide, smiling eyes. Rhydian Dafydd goaded the crowd, "Still with us? You look alive and well to me, motherfuckers," though it was perfectly plain everyone was still alive, as they were screaming, clapping along and hollering "I love you!"
"Whirring" is certainly still in the running for song of the year. It's so catchy that it's surprising to find it's close to seven minutes long. Live it's barely a hair under ten -- the three drag the chimerical coda out to pasture. Bryan knelt on the ground before her pristine pedal set-up, at one point gracefully kicking her guitar out of the way before driving out every bit of feedback. "Whirring" was good enough to end the night on, but end it they didn't. The person who thought they came to see "Whirring" live probably found herself anxiety ridden at the thought of the band omitting "I Don't Want to See You Like This." Conversely, the communists who weren't into the magnetic single found the song improved by the long-playing, blown out jam.
After a two minute respite in the green room, the band returned for "I Don't Want to See You Like This" and the surprising "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," which the band actually allowed to disintegrate with quiet force, at least, after they burned it to the ground.
The Welsh rockers played the Luminary Center for the Arts in April, and frontwoman Ritzy Bryan let it slip that they intend to return for a third time in December. We'll be glad to have them back.
Notes and setlist on the next page.