Live Review: The Joy Formidable with You Won’t and Blood Red Shoes at 9:30 Club, Washington DC – 21st April 2013
I don’t think I need to tell you in excruciating detail how The Joy Formidable‘s career has jumped by leaps and bounds in the months following Dave Grohl’s emphatic pronouncement in summer 2011 that the Welsh group was his favourite new band, saying to MTV’s Matt Pinfield, “they’re a killer live band with great songs”. It would be far too easy to say that their success could be attributed to Grohl’s taking of the band out of the road with Foo Fighters, which of course exposed them to new audiences far and wide who might not have otherwise heard of the trio. But the Joy Formidable story goes much further back, the band having shed loads of blood, sweat and tears through their hard work writing, recording and gigging.
As a Washingtonian, I’ve been able to see their steady progression as they made their way up the food chain of venues in our fair city. First they played to a small audience in the dive-y Black Cat Backstage in November 2010 (where I almost got impaled by singer Ritzy Bryan’s guitar’s neck); the next time, just 4 months later, they sold out the upstairs main room at the Cat; and then a year later, the band sold out our venerated 9:30 Club, which is no mean feat for any indie band. Despite how massive they’ve become, last November I was lucky to witness a very intimate charity gig at a local church, and to me, the band agreeing to do that gig says a lot of about their character. They aren’t a bunch of divas, that’s for sure.
We hear all too many times that some band has been catapulted to superstardom, selling out arenas, never wanting or bothering to be in the presence of their adoring fans except when they are onstage. It’s obvious in the Joy Formidable’s case that they wholeheartedly appreciate the audiences that come out to see them and they never take any of this fame and success for granted. I can testify, having seen them last Sunday at yet another sold out, blow out show at the 9:30, that they are still the same people that I met several years ago, before Mr. Grohl came out and said how great they were. Because I didn’t need to hear that from him. I already knew this long ago. They’d already made a huge impression on me on record and then I saw them live for the first time…and I was hooked.
There were two openers on this evening. The first was You Won’t, a duo from Lexington, Massachusetts, not all that far from Boston, where the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon there had taken place just days before. As a nation, we had all been in paralysed fear over what would happen next and would they catch who did it, and then afterwards, we were all were suffering from varying levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. In that respect, I suppose what You Won’t delivered might have provided you some badly needed humour. Their singer/guitarist Josh Arnoudse sings in a manner that teeters between nasal Woody Guthrie / Bob Dylan and what can only be best described as baby talk ala Tiny Tim. I can’t take borderline folk music like this seriously. Well, almost. The “machine room” of Raky Sastri, playing adeptly the drums, melodica, xylophone, and god knows what else I couldn’t see, looked and sounded amazing.
The other opener should be familiar to TGTF readers, as they’ve gigged and festivaled their way through the last 9 or so years. Brighton’s Blood Red Shoes brought their punky sound to the 9:30 and capped of their last night on the Joy Formidable tour with a bang. Older fan favourites like ‘I Wish I Was Someone Better’ were interspersed with tracks like ‘Cold’ from their latest album ‘In Time to Voices’ released in 2012. Maybe it’s because I’m used to listening to them in videos but for some reason they sounded so different to me live – it just sounded loud and not much else – and I didn’t like them as much. The crowd, however, used their set as an effective warm-up for the main event.
When it came time for the Joy Formidable’s set, the crowd was vocally expressing – loudly – that they were pumped to see their favourite band. The band bounded on stage, with frontwoman Ritzy Bryan dressed rather shockingly (for her) in a red dress that she later explained to me was because she felt like being a rebel that night! Also lending to the rebelliousness was a Blood Red Shoes trucker hat on her head, which she wore as a visual thank you to their departing openers.
Starting strong with last year’s single about a horse, ‘Cholla’ rang through the club like the starting bell of something amazing. With barely a breath and little more than maybe a change in axe between songs, the band thundered through an all too short collection of tunes that showcased their raw rock power live. ‘The Maw Maw Song’, which I have previously described as their ‘Led Zeppelin song’, was as raucous as you would expect it; ‘I Don’t Want to See You Like This’ was delivered in a similar way, with punters screaming along to the words.
The only real time the band slowed down was to play newer song ‘Silent Treatment’, which was bassist Rhydian Dafydd on acoustic guitar while singer Ritzy Bryan emoted heartbreakingly about the end of a relationship: “I’ll take the silent treatment / off your hands unbeaten / I’ll take the easy sequence / less people, more freedom”. Oh, and whenever Ritzy desired to take some humorous pot shots at drummer Matt Thomas, who was more than willing to take the bait for a few jokes. Ritzy commented that maybe Matt should get his own mike on the next tour, but then thought better of it, saying that he’d never stop talking and the show would be delayed. Ha!
Also, while it builds up to a blistering song both on record and live, I got a lump in my throat when the electronic buzzing notes to herald the start of ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’ started up. When I had interviewed the band in March 2011 just prior to the sold-out show at the Black Cat, afterwards I had thanked and hugged Ritzy for writing this song because not only is it an absolute rocking tune that gets even the most (usually) demure person like me headbanging like nobody’s business, it is so emotionally charged and pointed at its ending when she wishes the other person “you’re the greatest light the greatest shade, that means I can be happy for you, happy for you…”
When I had initially loved this song, it meant to me that when you’re looking back at a broken relationship and can be happy for the other person, even if he/she was with someone else, being able to say “I’m happy for you” is a major breakthrough for yourself, because you are acknowledging that you yourself are okay with not being with that person anymore. It no longer hurts. However, upon further contemplation of the live version of this song, Ritzy sings it so angrily and with these faces that make it clear that there’s something more combative under the surface. Maybe not quite Alanis Morrisette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ but certainly it’s a much more thoughtful, and in my opinion much more effective way of getting across being scorned. ‘The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie’, which rounded out their set before the pause prior to the encore, has the forceful words, “can’t you see I’m good?” and is another emotional one disguised in loud, brash instrumentation.
The encore consisted of a scorching trio of songs. First and second were ‘Forest Serenade’ and ‘Wolf’s Law’ from the new album. But the Joy Formidable would never leave an audience without a total balls to the wall track. And that on Sunday night would be ‘Whirring’, which ended up having a massively loud and extended outro that I dare you to stack up against any other hard rock band currently in existence. Breathtaking is the wrong word; when you’re there in the moment, surrounded by like-minded fans and there’s this sea of people who are experiencing the same body throwing around during a song like this, it’s reassuring in a weird way that so many other people just like react in the same mental way when faced with such a monster of a song. Leave them wanting more? Yep. Sunday night, the Joy Formidable left the stage with all the important boxes ticked. Job well done.
After the cut: the Joy Formidable’s set list.
The Joy Formidable’s Set List:
This Ladder is Ours
The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade
Maw Maw Song
I Don’t Want to See You Like This
The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie