Live Review

The Joy Formidable, The Phoenix, Exeter

The Joy Formidable stroll on at 9:45pm and pound our ears with loud and quiet for a solid 90 minutes.

Gigs are strange creatures. Aging rockers like The ‘Stones and the ‘Mac can command anything in the region of £100 and upwards per ticket for a few stadium shows, apparently without a stain on their collective conscience; whereas bands at the relative beginning of their careers such as The Joy Formidable, slog across the UK to play multiple dates at much smaller venues, with the knowledge that no one has shelled out much more than a tenner for the privilege. Yes, the economics of supply and demand are clearly in play, but even taking into account the legacy and stature of groups that call for selling a kidney on the black market in order to get a ticket, these two cash extremes of the live music business are still rather staggering.

However, showing that they mean business in a less mercenary sense, The Joy Formidable stroll on at 9:45pm and pound our ears with loud and quiet for a solid 90 minutes. Making their entrance to a fantastically tense and drawn-out intro of ‘Cholla’ – which, when it finally drops, is like a gleeful roar of triumph – sets the stage for their towering melodies that show just how much they belong on one. As the accompanying friend comments afterwards: the band’s ‘wtf?!’ range of noise made him feel like he was being bludgeoned by his own speakers; but seeing them live they now “make sense”. The ‘Formidable seem most at home on a relentless, multi-layered assault like ‘Little Blimp’ or the massive, swaggering arrogance of 7-minute opus ‘Maw Maw Song’, with all the bandmembers beating the hell out of their respective equipment, and guitarist Ritzy and bassist Rhydian periodically jabbing each other with machineheads for a laugh. But they also do gentler moments with a midas touch; Ritzy’s voice, often piercing like a siren, turns delicate and yearning on an acoustic ‘Silent Treatment’ or the string-laden wrench of ‘Tendons’, with her charismatic persona becoming more vulnerable in step. Ever the show(wo)man, in between songs there’s plenty of stage-to-audience banter, revealing a charmingly breathy cadence to her speech, whilst she addresses us like old friends and forces drummer Matt to tell a joke about a duck that completely bombs.

Despite the arresting sight of a wolf’s head silhouette outlined in LED as a centrepiece, tonight’s not just about ‘Wolf’s Law’ and there’s a generous scramble through the ‘The Big Roar’ too. The sell-out crowd, ranging from sweaty teens to weathered veterans of the gig scene, are beside themselves with joy on older cuts like the provocative, punchy ‘Cradle’ and ‘The Ever-Changing Spectrum Of A Lie’, a lesson in total fucking brute power. A huge, heavily atmospheric affair full of urgent pathos, it ominously declares “love, love is the everchanging spectrum of a lie, a lie… just to forget you’re born” and Ritzy’s glittering vocals hit hard and soft, high and low, with the whole lot breaking down at the end in an almighty mash of noise, as it does with set-closer ‘Whirring’.

Proving that you don’t need a big band or a big budget to make a big impact – their video screen is a flat backdrop onto which various images, usually relevant, occasionally puzzling (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday?) are projected – The Joy Formidable give us everything they’ve got before sending us, partially deafened, into the night.

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