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Michael Bialas

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Now Hear This: The Joy Formidable Sounds Off in North America

Posted: 03/27/2012 8:24 pm

Who said alternative art house rock and mosh pits don't mix?

A thinking man's -- and woman's -- band, The Joy Formidable brought its bombastic blend of muscle and bustle to North America this month. Among the jam-packed venues along the way was the Bluebird Theater in Denver on March 17, when the threesome proved their massive sound has mass appeal.

After opening with sold-out shows in San Francisco and a national TV appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, they'll wind up the U.S. leg on the East Coast, followed by stops in Montreal on March 31 and Toronto on April 2. Then it's on to Bonnaroo in June.

The London-based trio via North Wales fronted by bundle of energy Ritzy Bryan has the '60s eardrum-splitting amped-up power of Cream, the '70s progressive intelligence of King Crimson and the '80s punk sensibilities of X and Black Flag, taking listeners on an aural trip back in time.

Even the middle-aged crazies brave enough to get up close and personal on St. Patrick's Day had to be startled when fervent followers of both genders were hurtling their bodies with reckless abandon into innocent bystanders who were thinking the slam dance was a thing of the past.

The Joy Formidable isn't defined by any age bracket or demographic, though, as the mix of young and old, adventurous and vigilant, demented and demure could attest.

While the muddled sound in the cramped Bluebird didn't do the band (or the audience) any favors, turning Bryan's already enigmatic words and occasional strained vocals into mush, nobody seemed to mind.

Many tried to sing along, but most preferred to exult in the moment. Instead of deciphering lyrics like "the coils the echoes tattling, I hope the fears are buried beneath my love" from "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," revelers were left spent after experiencing the tune's flourishing finish that's reminiscent of The Who's "Baba O'Riley."

And that was only the fourth song.

Ritzy Bryan mouthRitzy Bryan tilt


Two sides of The Formidable Joy frontwoman Ritzy Bryan at the Bluebird in Denver.

From the classical intro that preceded "A Heavy Abacus," the first of nine stirring cuts played from the epic 2011 release The Big Roar (Canvasback/Atlantic Records), The Joy Formidable was nothing less than that in the eyes of mere mortals.

The group's dynamic 75-minute, 12-song set on a stage with a nautical theme (lighthouse, ship steering wheel on Bryan's mic stand, images of waves on the backdrop) took willing passengers on a fantastic voyage of anthemic rock.

Rhydian Dafydd handsThe Garbage-like power-pop chords of "Cradle" elicited squeals of delight and the enthusiastic rhythm section of bassist/backup vocalist (and Bryan's friend since childhood) Rhydian Dafydd (right) and drummer Matt Thomas was a propulsive force that made sonic demonstrations of "Austere" and "The Magnifying Glass" soar.

Bryan, a classically trained guitarist capable of elaborate orchestral maneuvers (thanks to an array of floor pedals), assaults her Fender Stratocaster as much as she plays it. There probably hasn't been a Bluebird audience so enamored with a guitar goddess since St. Vincent's Annie Clark in 2010.

While Clark played it cool, though, Bryan's emotions were visible on a game face continuously in transition, with smirks, sneers and leers that would've made Johnny Lydon proud. And appearing outwardly as a petite woman with a platinum blonde pageboy and elegant black dress who could pass for Helen Mirren's daughter, this dame is daring without displaying any sense of pretense. In a rare musical introduction, Bryan even said one of their first collaborations -- "Greyhounds in the Slips" -- is a song that's "so fucking weird."

Her sailor mouth is offset by a beaming smile that keeps this ship cruising, whether she's bumping and grinding with Dafydd, banging the gong with all her tiny might during the climactic conclusion of "Buoy" or rewarding the "nice" Denver audience with an acoustic lullaby called "Silent Treatment," which will appear on their next album.

That led to the fitting finale with a seraphic start by a lovely harpist introduced as Stephanie. From a dreamlike state, "Whirring" exploded into controlled chaos as the three band members rattled the house with insane intensity, particularly over the final half of this 10-minute live version that's worthy of its encore status.

A band exemplifying pure joie de vivre, The Joy Formidable makes a joyful noise that'll leave you screaming for more. Just make sure you're LOUD enough to be heard.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of The Joy Formidable at Denver's Bluebird Theater.

See the official video of "Whirring," directed by Christoper Mills, from The Big Roar:

 

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