Without thinking more of it I met him at the venue. The Joy Formidable exploded on the stage with sound and energy and passion, and then after 30 minutes or so, when the furious sounds subsided and Ritzy Bryan kicked an amplifier to the ground and left the stage with the sustained tone of audio feedback, I was stunned; even more so when the lights turned on and I realized my friend and I were in a sea of tittering, clueless teens who knew nothing of the Joy Formidable or perhaps even the expansive joys of truly good rock music.
TJF had been the opening band to a middling one, F.U.N. and the performance had been lost on most of the crowd. A "Fun" concert indeed.
To the F.U.N. fans, the Joy Formidable probably challenged everything they are expected to like -- the band is intimate and earnest and complex instead of packaged and slick; it combines raw sounds and rarified vocals, not simple chords and pat lyrics designed to make the childish listener feel important. To put it bluntly, the Joy Formidable live up to its name in all ways.
And it did so again at Pop's on Monday night.
I questioned the venue: Why Pop's? Why Sauget, Ill.? A sentiment Ritzy seemed to share, "Where are we? Saw-Jay? How do you pronounce this place?" she spoke in her lilting Welsh accent. But the venue seemed to work well with the band this Monday night. The open space can seem a bit cavernous (it's basically the size of a single airplane hanger with a huge bar and a sizable stage), but the band has a cavernous sound to match it.
Besides the stage lighting, the room is lit by the neon giveaways advertising Budweiser, Bud Light and PBR. When the lead singer of one of the opening bands, Guards, asked for the house lights to be turned down, we were all bathed in beer glow while they were all choked up in a cloud of machined smoke and darkness. I'm not sure that was the effect he was looking for. The first band up, Kitten, an under-20 complement of three hipster boys plus Chloe Chaidez, is the real deal. If I could have dragged every soft-faced F.U.N. fan over to Pop's for the night to school them in what real burgeoning talent looked, I would have pointed to her, "Do you see! Do you see this girl! This is how you make music!" and then I probably would have been arrested by angry parents.
The Joy Formidable isn't a normal band. They have the shared stage presence of Jack and Meg White during the height of the Stripes and at times the sheer energy of a hair metal band. When Ritzy sings, she can cut through the band's loud sound as if it weren't there. "Whirring" and "A Heavy Abacus" from the album "The Big Roar" are examples of this, and both are fiery songs with passionate choruses. Rhydian Dafydd reaches surprising heights with his backup vocals, approaching an impressive falsetto, and on tracks like "Austere" his voice hooks the whole song together.
The musicians of TJF often combine anthemic power chords with a simple melody with surprising effect, like in "Maw Maw Song" or "Cradle" which sticks to you as one of Ritzy's stunning looks can do. She can step to the microphone and calm everything down in an instant, a signature style of their songwriting in which tempo is just another axis they play around and use to their advantage. She too can cast a spell with disarming lyricism with such lilting ballads as "The Turnaround" and "Silent Treatment," so it wasn't surprising when a few songs in, an audio recording of Longfellow's poem "The Heart of a Friend" played between songs, providing clues perhaps to the warmth the band often aspires to and the complex balance of chaos and control they dance with. If Longfellow "breathed a song into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where," then Ritzy Bryan does so while knowing exactly where her songs hit, most of them right on target, in the gut and the head at the same time: "I'll take a quiet leave it/But I'm hot-wired, quick-feelinged/So I'll take the silent treatment."
There will be at least one song, probably a majority of them, that will hold you in thrall during a live performance of the Joy Formidable; and god forbid Ritzy is looking at your general direction when she sings the last lines of "I Don't Want To See You Like This": "This is the past right here/I choose to leave it here" because if that's the case, you might never forget it.