The Joy Formidable is celebrating its 10th anniversary of band-dom on their current tour, which made a stop in Philadelphia on November 7th, by putting together a set that spanned the Welsh trio’s back catalog, including their latest release, AAARTH. Underground Arts hosted the modest and chronologically diverse crowd; I was surprised to see audience members ranging from 20s to 50s for a relatively young band, but perhaps it’s a testament to the universality of their sound.
Also helping to bridge that gap was opener, Tancred, fronted by Jess Abbott, formerly of Now, Now. Tancred took the stage at 9PM sharp, and the band’s sound immediately took me back to the ‘90s, drawing comparisons to Breeders, Belly and Pixies, with single-stringed guitar riffs reminiscent of Archers of Loaf. The four-piece band tore through about a dozen songs in 45 minutes, each composed of three or four chords that may or may not appear together in nature, and each had clever dissonant touches. Compared to the more polished sound of their recent LP, Nightstand, the live show was boisterous and energetic, a fine table-setter for the main course.
The Joy Formidable’s appearance was preceded by orchestral synths, the opening of “This Ladder is Ours” from 2013’s Wolf’s Law. TJF, as recorded, has a full, multi-layered sound despite being only a three-piece band, so the question was: how will that translate to a live performance? When they played their first chords, the answer was clear: they would simply play as if they were much more than three people (with some, but not much, assistance from overdubs). That doesn’t mean that they were going to, or expected to, reproduce the albums note-for-note, but they were definitely going to put everything they had into each song.
The stage was setup with the drums on stage left. In addition to the trap set, drummer Matthew James Thomas’s kit included chimes and a gong, rigged with a mallet on a fulcrum. The effect of the drums’ placement was that the rest of the stage appeared cavernous, especially for two people to share. That would prove to be no problem for TJF. In an age of shoegazers, guitarist/vocalist Ritzy Bryan and bassist/keyboardist/guitarist Rhydian Dafydd utilized every part of that floor. In fact, the overall philosophy of the band’s live performance was: be as economical as possible. Like a carnivore who devours every last bit of its prey, TJF used not only the entire floor, but every inch of their instruments as well. Bryan indeed made her case for inclusion in the list of best rock guitarists of the current century.
The set also included “Cradle,” a noisy rocker from their 2010 EP, A Balloon Called Moaning, followed by the patiently melodic “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” from 2011’s The Big Roar. It wasn’t until the fourth song that they broached AAARTH, with the opening number “Y Bluen Eira,” replacing its cacophonic sampled intro with other cacophonic live percussion. They also performed “Passerby,” a six-minute gritty outtake from the sessions that produced 2016’s Hitch. There were brief respites from the intensity and musical grimacing, such as when Dafydd traded his bass for an acoustic guitar for a softer version of “A Heavy Abacus,” or the keyboard introduction to “Ostrich.”
The between-songs dialogue was entertaining and conversational; they devoted five minutes to the logical parsing of the sentence “we haven’t been here since the last time” (was “here” Philadelphia or Underground Arts? And what, exactly was the adjective clause “the last time” meant to affect?). They eventually settled that they were last at Union Transfer (a few blocks away) three years ago, but there was still a lack of consensus. We also learned that they are unable to find proper welshcakes in the states, which, at a previous tour stop, prompted discussion about quitting the music biz to open Dunkin’ Welshcakes. Following that conversation, a fan did them the favor of purchasing Dunkinwelshcakes.com for them.
The encore included a lovely stripped down version of their latest single, “The Better Me,” which helped to highlight the sentimentality of the lyrics (“The better me is you / I know why”). The set closed with “Whirring,” an early hit, the song devolving into a droning jam, which ended with the members magically slipping out of sight. Though the set was relatively brief (clocked in at about 80 minutes), it packed a wallop, and one could be sure that the crowd, young and less-young, went home satisfied, their dollars well-spent.