Review: The Joy Formidable brings festival-sized energy to the State Theatre in St. Petersburg
Three times in the past two years, I’ve seen The Joy Formidable perform on a main stage at a huge music festival.
It’s not hard to see why festivals are so hot for the trio. Their music is a glorious Cat-5 hurricane of guitars and boot-stomping percussion. Music this massive practically demands a stage to match.
But a downside to today’s festival culture is that midsize acts like The Joy Formidable don’t always get to display their full range of power. Instead of a full set, you get 30 generic minutes of hits on a temporary outdoor stage — and once fans have seen that much, they may be less inclined to seek the band out a second time. As a result, each band is little more than one part of an all-you-can-eat musical buffet — which can be filling, but it’s rarely as memorable as a fully prepared, singularly delicious meal.
For that, you had to be in St. Petersburg on Sunday, as The Joy Formidable brought their colossal sound to a much smaller venue, the State Theatre, without losing an iota of electricity.
Doe-eyed and blond-bobbed, singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan is adored and admired by a range of rock fans (“I’m not gay, and I have a crush on her,” I overheard one woman say). Though Bryan is a devilish guitarist and more than capable singer, it is her enthusiasm — as well as that of drummer Matt Thomas and bassist (and ex-boyfriend Rhydian Dafydd — that remains The Joy Formidable’s greatest asset. There’s a kid-sisterly zeal to her stage presence; as she ricochets back and forth between drummer Thomas and Dafydd, playfully bumping the latter mid-solo, her eyes and smile keep expanding in wild-eyed wonderment, almost as if she’s saying, Guys guys guys, lookit all this NOISE I’m making!
The trio opened with a manic and mighty one-two-three punch of Cholla, Austere and This Ladder Is Ours, three songs as infectious as they are incendiary. Austere, with its propulsive bass and spiralling vocals, is from the group’s 2011 debut The Big Roar, but the other two are from new album Wolf’s Law, which expands The Joy Formidable’s sonic palette in more nuanced, exploratory ways.
For example: Dafydd offered a delicate piano interlude on Tendons and beautifully strummed an acoustic guitar on the ballad Silent Treatment. And then the band followed Silent Treatment — by far the gentlest and most moving song of the night — with Maw Maw Song, an epic, serpentine, Zeppelinesque haymaker that had Thomas flailing around to bash a giant gong at the drop of each chorus.
The band’s closer Whirring was, as always, an electrifying show-stopper. Thomas pounded his kit like Squiddly Diddly on Red Bull while Dafydd lunged around the stage and kicked Thomas’ cymbals for good measure. And of course Bryan did whatever she could to top them all, racing back and forth across the lip of the stage, letting fans tickle her fretboard during the typhoon-force climax. (Yeah, I got a hand or two in there. What of it?) She ended by smacking her glowing mic stand to the stage, handing her guitar to a guy in the crowd, then strutting offstage with a gigantic grin.
There is no moody pretention in the Joy Formidable’s music — they’re metal’s living Muppets, three friends whose endearing energy overpowers any sense of self-seriousness. Their albums are complex and ambitious yet their live shows are fun and fresh and 100 percent carefree, which is a combination too few rock bands manage to get right. Foo Fighters and Sleigh Bells are a couple who come to mind, but otherwise it’s a pretty short list.
I’m sure they’re out there, though. Maybe I just need to get to more festivals.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*