When I first saw the Joy Formidable in 2011, I was stunned at how three musicians could make such a gigantic and explosive sound all by themselves.
And if there was any doubt why the Welsh rockers called their debut from that year The Big Roar, it was erased at the trio’s First Avenue gig Tuesday night, which was a master class in putting on a monstrous rock show.
The Joy Formidable’s third album, the recently released Hitch, marks another move further away from the airtight shoegaze of The Big Roar. It’s a more fully realized version of 2013’s Wolf’s Law — moodier, wiser, and more sprawling than the sound many in the Mainroom fell in love with five years ago, but still packing enough punch to crumble the Severn Bridge.
The band’s Energizer Bunny of a frontwoman, Ritzy Bryan, tough-guy bassist Rhydian Dafydd, and goofball drummer Matthew James Thomas took the stage to the familiar strains of Big Roar finale “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade.”
Over the course of the next eight minutes, they turned that climactic tune into a true party-starter that highlighted the marriage of Bryan’s gorgeous vocal melodies and take-no-prisoners approach to the guitar, Dafydd’s fist-in-the-air bombast, and Thomas’ relentless drum attack.
Two more fan favorites — “This Ladder Is Ours” and “I Don’t Want to See You Like This” — followed, before the band dove into their recent year-long recording session, which saw them put 70 songs to tape before whittling those down to the dozen found on Hitch.
“Passerby” was axed from the album’s final cut, but was used by Bryan to introduce the latest release (“It isn’t on the fucking record!”) and was one of just two new songs aired during the main set, along with lead single “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
In all, the night’s 13 songs included just three from Hitch, a shame since those tunes were some of the highlights of the night. The poppy “Radio of Lips” and album standout “Liana” (“a song about living to be brave again”) were added in the four-song encore, giving some balance to a setlist that at times felt too Big Roar-centric (admittedly, you’re doing pretty well if that’s your biggest problem).
The confident bounce of Dafydd’s bass in “Liana,” and the balls-to-the-wall rock-out it morphed into, actually belied the group’s hesitance to try out more of Hitch on a tour promoting that record.
Larger-than-life new numbers like “A Second in White” and “Blowing Fire” would’ve slotted in nicely alongside the older cuts, and their omission was all the more puzzling considering the 12 months of meticulous attention recently paid to these songs in a North Wales recording studio.
Everything the band did play, though, was fantastic. The thumping “Maw Maw Song” was taken to another level with a stirring guitar solo from Bryan. The punky “Cradle” followed Thomas’ own solo, after which he hammed it up for the crowd, raising his arms like a running back who just scored the go-ahead touchdown.
It was always a visual treat whenever Dafydd made his way over to Thomas’ sideways drum kit near the front of the stage, kicking and punching the cymbals as if to squeeze even more decibels out of his timekeeper.
As has become standard at Joy Formidable shows, an extended take on early hit “Whirring” closed out the proceedings. The Big Roar centerpiece incited a mosh pit at the front of the First Avenue floor, something that seemed to power them through the song’s unwavering instrumental outro.
Bryan jumped down into the photo pit with her axe, Dafydd slapped hands with adoring fans in the first row, and Thomas gave a hilarious “Where did everybody go?” motion before launching his mallet at the giant gong set up behind his kit.
The stick almost completely missed the mark, which couldn’t have been a worse analogy for the previous 90 minutes of work that the Joy Formidable had just put in.
Critic’s bias: This was my sixth time seeing the Joy Formidable. I’ve rescheduled flights to see them and sped across town to catch them after another concert. Tuesday’s concert was quite easily my favorite of those half-dozen shows.
Notes on the opener: Mancunian art-rockers Everything Everything put on an impassioned 40-minute set that combined danceable rhythms, emotive guitar solos, and singer Jonathan Higgs’s natural showmanship.
They’re currently promoting last year’s Get to Heaven, which has earned them tons of praise across the Atlantic but hasn’t made much of a dent stateside. That album’s “Spring/Sun/Winter/Dread” was a particular highpoint, and although it’s hard to get further away sonically from the Joy Formidable than songs like this, the bill worked perfectly.
The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade
This Ladder Is Ours
I Don’t Want to See You Like This
The Last Thing on My Mind
The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie
Radio of Lips
Maw Maw Song