Concert Review: The Joy Formidable @ Union Stage (9/12/22)

The Joy Formidable (Photo from FB @thejoyformidable)
The Joy Formidable (Photo from FB @thejoyformidable)

“I didn’t realize how emotional this tour would be.” – Ritzy Bryan

Despite a sparse crowd on a Monday night (opposite an epic Monday Night Football tilt*), The Joy Formidable conquered those lucky enough to be at Union Stage on September 12th with wave after wave of epic guitar riffs and thundering drums.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Joy Formidable perform live six times now, and they had something visceral and powerful on display during this 13-song performance in particular. Maybe it was due in part because they spent half the setlist on songs from their first album, The Big Roar (four of those originated on their very first EP, A Balloon Called Moaning). Or maybe it was the way Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan (lead vocals and guitar) exuberantly overshared (in a good way) with multiple stories and jokes. Or that September 2022 was their first time in DC (and touring in the USA) since before the pandemic. Or simply the fact that everyone circled around the stage at Union Stage needed this off the charts level of energy in their life, even if sadly only for an evening.

They are touring for their fifth album, 2021’s Into The Blue (via Enci Records). The album is about opening your eyes to beauty and love again, and unintentionally became a metaphor for our current times. The Joy Formidable is from Wales, and formed in London in 2007. They currently reside in “the middle of nowhere” Utah, where much of Into the Blue was recorded, though it was written in Wales before they found their nowhere. Aside from Ritzy, the two other members are Rhydian Dafydd (bass and vocals) and Matthew James Thomas (drums, percussion, and massive gong). I had a moment with Matthew during the opening set (by Tres Leches) when he asked to me at the bar “Are you in in the queue, mate?” I wasn’t, so he got right up there for a successful transaction.

They opened the show with one of their early songs, “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade”, and warmed the bustling pack of indie rock enthusiasts up to a full boil that never dissipated until the last note of the evening. 

Ritzy sang two songs in Welsh, the first was “Y Bluen Eira”, which is a powerful experience when live. The guitar riff drives deep into your soul, as you try to work out the lyrics. The title translates to “The Snowflake”, but the fairy tale it tells seemingly loses all nuance and heft when confronted with Google’s unworthy translation algorithms. The power, therefore, comes from the sound waves bouncing off your face, and the intensity in which the three Formidables took to producing those sounds waves, not from any meaning that might gleaned as a non-speaker of Welsh.

Midway through the set they played the title track from the new album, an instant classic. The single also features Rhydian sharing vocal duties. It has the empathetic hue of The Joy Formidable’s early albums, and speaks to seeing someone for who they really are and moving on, while surrendering yourself to a new, unexpected journey with the possibility of finding love again.

The second song in Welsh was “Y Garreg Ateb”, one that was self-released and is not found on any of their albums. The title translates to “The Answer Stone”, where you might picture the wise grandfather regaling the younglings with a tale of adventure and valor, next to a roaring fire (presumably). This is speculation, but you’ve already pictured it, so the damage is done. It’s a treat to see each member of the band give their all during each song, from Ritzy singing unabashedly and then switching to shredding the guitar all over the stage, to Rhydian’s solid bass driven by constant motion and head banging, and to Matthew’s mugging and antics over the drums to the crowd’s delight (channeling Animal), with an occasional blow to the gong.

One of the best songs they performed that evening was in fact not a blistering rock anthem, but the paired down “The Silent Treatment”, the only track they played from their album Wolf’s Law. This introspective ode to choosing yourself over others featured only lyrics and bass. The hush and rapt attention of the crowd was palpable throughout Union Stage, a glorious moment of reprieve from the furious energy we’d just experienced, and had still to come.

Next Ritzy talked about all the dogs that they fostered during the pandemic lock-down, leading to the inspiration for “Gotta Feed My Dog”. It’s a wry nod to preferring the company of dogs over some of the people you’ve invited into your life.

For the encore, they gave us two bangers. First, the turbulent ferocity of “Sevier”, from Into the Blue. Before your brain and senses had a chance to process, let alone recover, they moved to an absolute beastly version of “Whirring”. I stood mere feet away, nodding like a fool, with only the words ‘Fuck yeah’ available. So I had to own it, ‘FUCK YEAH!’

Into the Blue is a strong album, so go get yourself a copy. But if you’re new to The Joy Formidable, go get the 10 Year Anniversary version of their original eight song EP, A Balloon Called Moaning. The anniversary version has the English versions of the original songs, but also has each song a second time sung in Welsh, which is a fascinating contrast.

Hopefully it won’t be another three years before The Joy Formidable return to DC. Ritzy alluded to big plans coming up in the next year, which seemed to imply something beyond the standard album and tour. 

Setlist

  1. The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade 
  2. I Don’t Want to See You Like This
  3. Y Bluen Eira
  4. Ostrich
  5. CSTS (Come See the Show)
  6. Into the Blue
  7. Austere
  8. Y Garreg Ateb
  9. Silent Treatment
  10. Gotta Feed My Dog
  11. The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie

Encore

  1. Sevier
  2. Whirring

* Editor’s Note: The MNF match-up was Denver @ Seattle (my team), so it’s especially telling that I choose to skip it, to instead once again experience The Joy Formidable.

Author: Jeremy Bailey

Writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.

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