TEXT/PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PASSMAN
I live for rock ‘n’ roll. I have a day job, but seeing, shooting, interacting with, and writing about bands takes up nearly every ounce of my free time, and if you read Blurt, you share that affinity. There comes a pitfall with loving music: You think you’re open to hearing new music, but most of it sounds the same or sounds like something you’ve heard before. Although rock ‘n’ roll is the greatest rip-off, so everything good sounds like something you’ve heard before, a lot of it is generic. Most of the time, this assessment is fair. However, one ends up missing some really great acts like The Joy Formidable.
The band was a favorite at SXSW a few years ago. They even did a live set for KEXP during the festival. They also played Fun Fun Fun Fest last year. I was shooting something else, obviously. For their Saturday set at ACL Festival this year, a prerecorded intro played to start their set. Once they came out and started playing, it was infectious. They all smiled wide and dug in. Ritzy Bryan, the guitarist/vocalist, turned, smiled, and made eye contact to different parts of the crowd as if recognizing individuals. Although this is part of the performance, it establishes a connection with the crowd that I haven’t seen a band do since The Alarm, who like The Joy Formidable, are Welsh. Not only was the crowd hooked, but all of us in the photo pit had wide grins on our faces and lumps in our throat. We felt it, too.
You could feel it in the music. The opener “This Ladder is Ours” is a pop shoegaze full of swirling guitar punch. Overall, they sound the cool forcefulness of The Breeders with harmonic swirls of My Bloody Valentine, both loud and melodic. With its first line “Let’s take a walk, it’s long overdue” was not just the band’s introduction, but an invitation to everyone to join them.
Their second song, “Cholla,” is a serious rocker, although catchy. For “Silent Treatment,” the slow song off their new album “Wolf’s Law,” Ritzy easily commanded the crowd to quiet down While bassist Rhydian Dayfdd traded off his bass for an acoustic guitar. The audience stayed captivated and silent except for those who knew the song while Ritzy stood and smiled out at the crowd, inflecting every line with her eyes letting the audience know who she’s singing to.
The band is musically polished, but their performance pulled everyone in for the show. Ritzy, Rhydian, and drummer Matt Thomas show all appear as if they’re having the time of their lives on stage and the crowd responded accordingly. It was not just exciting, it felt like hearing and seeing an amazing band for the first time and loving every minute of it, despite not knowing their songs, much like being taken to a rock concert/show for the first time.
There are way too many bands now that receive critical praise, but forget they’re playing for an audience and end up performing with the artist and audience barrier firmly in place. The Joy Formidable break that mold. It’s so unusual these days to see a band that connects with the audience and makes the performance special and personal. In fact, many of the other photographers stayed for the performance and mixed with the audience instead of heading over to another stage to shoot more. The audience also grew during their performance. The Joy Formidable was magnetic and played with abandon.
The band ended with an ultimate catchy and blistering loud performance of “Whirring”, which stays in one’s head for days afterwards. Although ACL Festival had larger headliners who had much larger stages, set times, and bigger crowds, The Joy Formidable played and rocked the audience better from start to finish. There are those that feel that show pics don’t mean enough and that one had to be there to experience it. I agree with that. The photos don’t do justice enough. However, everyone who I recommended them to that saw them thought they were amazing. That’s the best description. I wish I knew about them before now.
Passman’s Complete ACL Coverage: