Perhaps it is the mix of aesthetics -- John's shockingly gold sparkle top and white snakeskin boots, drummer Luke Adams' buzz cut that could only have been modeled after the most recent armed forces enlistee: This wasn't the standard indie rock look you see at the Firebird. And the lyrics -- a surface listen of which at best conjure some sort of '80s romance movie soundtrack -- "Monte Carlo you keep in your dreams / Along with horses, princes, and kings" -- just add to the pastiche. Incongruous, indeed.
But a deeper listen, a willingness to allow these disparate elements of fashion, sounds and sentiments nevertheless to merge into a single moment, a single space, reveals something truly fascinating, and, well, integrated. Under the surface lurks something with integrity. Think raw, southern American blues rock; not so much Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, but more like the movie Black Snake Moan. Yes, these four skinny-jeaned and lady-blazered white boys from Washington D.C., when they sing, "Come now, follow your heart, young American soul / I hear you crying out in the night / I hear your heartbeat, on these dead end streets / I hear you screaming out to the light," somehow evoke Samuel L. Jackson in his most "aim to cure you of your wickedness" kind of way.
U.S. Royalty opened for the Joy Formidable last night at the Firebird, touting their single "Equestrian," which is nice, and which had their fans "oh oh oh oh oh"ing along with them for the chorus, but this more popular tune was not their moment of triumph. Rather, USR's 10-minute rendition of "The Desert Won't Save You" from their recent self-released album "Mirrors," in a single song, accomplished what all openers should and must do: They set the stage for a full-bore rock show. "There's a strong desert wind / and it's creepin' in, creepin' in… / Oh this is the season of my prime… / Don't doubt me now… / I'm gonna lay you down." Laid down we were, prone and primed for The Joy Formidable. "It's the witching hour."
Photo of the Joy Formbidable by Meghan McGlynn
The Joy Formidable itself is a collection of contradictions ("All these things about me you never can tell / Colors run prime, paint a picture so bright"). Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan, a bit elven with her white white hair and tiny stature and crystal-laden mic, at first glance, makes you think of images and phrases like "magical fairy" and "tippy toes" -- in their words, "I'll pretend a pretty pretend."
Her childhood friend and co-singer Rhydian Dafydd can perhaps best be described as shadowy, wearing all black with hat-shaded eyes and somehow curiously able to avoid being photographed (out of the hundreds of pics I shot, those of Rhydian were nothing more than blurred grays). However, together with drummer Matt Thomas they produce a sound that is not small or depressing, and though enchanting, is definitely not "enchanted forest." In fact, live, the Joy Formidable is explosive. Less "screaming American soul" than U.S. Royalty (no doubt in part due to the fact that TJF come from Wales), but just as powerful. In the words of USR, "You were found / Living in the wild son / In the wild living with the wild ones / You were found living in the wild sun."
Last night was TJF's second trip to "St. Louie" this year (they played Luminary in April), and if it's possible, in the last couple of months, they have managed to make their handful of songs from 2010's "A Balloon Called Moaning" and their latest release "Big Roar" sound even bigger, badder, wilder (from a moan to a roar?). A short 10-song, 1-hour set was all they gave us, but that hour did not want for anything.
Through iTunes, TJF is good (hey, I ranked them one of the top ten albums featuring female vocalists last year), but live, TJF is mesmerizingly terrifying (terrifyingly mesmerizing?). "Here we are, bending feet / In the dark before dreamless sleep / Cloaks that spot, that shiver, that breeze / Throws you in the dark." Yeah, you don't know what hit you when they start rocking.
Though TJF's sound no doubt could dominate a much bigger venue, being arm's-length from these characters at the Firebird (or even Luminary) is an experience: "All the things you like / Guided by their charms / Behind them safely store / Wrap your greedy arms around them all." Yeah, up-close and personal with those three is pretty awesome. Good news, they aim to be back in December. Not many shows would draw me three times in one year, but, TJF, what can I say? "Now your world is here… / haunting me." Or, maybe more aptly stated is a quote a TJF devotee from last night's show: "That RULED."
The Joy Formidable setlist:
A Heavy Abacus
The Magnifying Glass
The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade
I Don't Want to See You Like This
The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie