Review: The Sonic Blast of The Joy Formidable hits State Theatre, St. Petersburg

click to enlarge The Joy Formidable Sun., May 5, 2013. - Tracy May
Tracy May
The Joy Formidable Sun., May 5, 2013.

Everyone was ready to party at the Joy Formidable show at the State Theater in St. Petersburg last Sunday night, and not just because it was Cinco De Mayo and most people had already been throwing down most of the day. The Joy Formidable is known for being a high-energy, blast-your-face-off kind of band (well, they’ll be known for that last part from here forward). Fans had come from both sides of the Bay and beyond — I saw people I knew from Sarasota — to dance, drink and witness the Joy Formidable doing what they do: making a lot of awesome noise. [Text by Shae, photos by Tracy.]

IO Echo opened the show. From L.A., IO Echo consists of multi-instrumentalists Ionna Gika and Leopold Ross. For the tour, however, they filled out the stage with several other instrumentalists on drums, bass and guitar. The easiest way to describe them is as a pastiche of the last 30 years. The New Wave-y music sounded like The Cure and the band members looked like they either belonged in Seattle circa 1992, or a current Urban Outfitters catalog. Their stage setup was dramatic — smoke swirling, blue lights flashing behind rice-paper room-divider walls — but the music was a little safer than I would have liked.

The Joy Formidable took the stage a little after 9:30 p.m., and by that time, State Theatre was packed. Touring for their latest album, Wolf’s Law, the band had a giant wolf’s head rimmed in flashing, color-changing lights hanging up in front of a movie screen that covered the back of the entire stage. Images and videos of the band, what looked like the American southwest, and some guy eating brownie batter (I hope) by the wooden spoonful were projected throughout the set. Spotlights blinked and saturated the theater in every color of the rainbow. When I listened to the Joy Formidable without knowing much about them, I thought, “Oh, a female-fronted indie band, cool,” but seeing them live and witnessing their setup, I realized, no, they’ve got some major weight behind them.

Even with all the bells and whistles (and actual tour buses), they don't come off as rock stars, but as gracious, friendly, there to have fun while playing music. And I don’t think anyone has more fun on stage than Ritzy Bryan, the lead-singer and guitarist. With her Ramona Quimby haircut, black and white high-waisted baby doll dress and giant blue eyes, Ritzy came across as a child hyped-up on sugar as she twirled, swayed and jumped all over the stage. She’d run over, head-butt bassist Rhydian Dafydd, and then tear across the stage to carom off of Matthew James Thomas’ drum set, all while continuing to play guitar.

The thing that most impresses me about TJF is the amount of sound they can produce. The first time I watched them on YouTube, I kept waiting for the camera to pan and reveal the rest of the band, or the extras brought on to help fill out the live show. There was no way three people could be making that kind of sonic tsunami. But it really was just the three of them, just as it was in St. Pete. With the help of a few pre-recorded loops and sundry pedals, Thomas’ beastly drum set — which included at least six cymbals and a gong the size of a child’s wading pool — and Dafydd’s occasional use of a keyboard, the threesome made the noise of a band with twice as many members. The audience helped by clapping and howling like wolves from time to time.

Less effective were the moments the band tried to do the ethereal, angelic thing. When the music dropped to a low, steady hum, and Ritzy stood in place, fluttering her hands and cooing, the energy in the entire theater plummeted. Instead of being moved, people either stood there looking bored, or left to go to the bathroom and refill their beers, hoping to return after the party had picked back up again.

And pick up again it did, especially during the encore. Amid a flood of sound, Ritzy slipped off her guitar and held it out over the front rows of the audience. A wave of hands reached up to pound, mangle and strum her black Strat. The cacophony crested, and as the noise receded, Ritzy handed the guitar off to someone in the audience. When the guitar tech tried to retrieve it, Ritzy reached over and pushed him away. As the crowd milled out of the theater, I saw many mouths agape and eyes wide with incredulity. What had we just witnessed? The power of pure sound.

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