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Live Review and Photos: The Joy Formidable, Telekinesis, and Races, September 14, 2011, El Rey – Los Angeles, CA

Photos by Philip Cosores

The Joy Formidable’s music is fun and catchy and worthy of some attention from fans of pop-rock music, but this Welsh trio have done much more than “get attention.” They have been signed to a major label, name-checked by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, and chosen to support Foo Fighters on their tour of America. All these things don’t come to a band who just put out one decent album, and it’s clear that there is much more to them when you see them up onstage. A group of young Brits who can come to the other side of the world and enthral a group of over a thousand people for an hour without pause is something to get excited about.

Before their arrival to the stage it was the turn of Races to open proceedings. It was a hometown show for them, which can be just as daunting as travelling across the world to play, especially when you’ve got a lot of hype around you, having just signed to Frenchkiss. The L.A. sextet didn’t show any signs of the pressure getting to them, as they came out snarling with a song that concluded with a air-guitar-worthy guitar solo that could have easily been a show-ending event in the set of many bands. Fortunately, it was just the start. Throughout their set the band performed a bunch of vibrant and uplifting indie rock songs, and did so with such aplomb that it seemed as though they’re veterans. They segued cleanly between songs and leader Wade Ryff and co-singer Devon Lee’s vocals played off each other nicely. Lee had a floor-tom, but her use of it seemed to add positively to the building and soaring of their songs, unlike some people I’ve seen who seem to have them just for the sake of making noise. At times Races sound similar to Arcade Fire, especially in the gang vocals, but they didn’t just have elements of Arcade Fire’s sound in their music, they, more importantly, have the same kind of passion, and it is this that will carry them onwards and make word spread about them.

Telekinesis were the second band on the bill and were a nice warm up for the non-stop rock of The Joy Formidable that was to come. The Seattle trio is lead by Michael Benjamin Lerner who sets up camp on his drum kit in the middle of the stage. To me, most singing drummers look fairly awkward in trying to maintain both skills at once, but Lerner looked natural, and it looked like the drum kit was holding him back from being a natural frontman. This was emphasised by the fact that at any point in a song when he didn’t have to drum he’d stand up from his stool to sing, and he even switched places with guitarist Cody Votolato when he had the chance.

All three members embodied the upbeat nature of their music in their performance, but in different ways. I’m not sure if they’d thank me for saying this but they reminded me a little of Green Day: the constantly bouncing drummer who can’t sit still, the hyper-active guitarist, and the bassist who is more reserved, but unafraid to strike a pose. The guys ultimately showed their charm when they couldn’t tune their acoustic guitar, entertaining questions from the audience and laughing about the whole matter. This kind of personality goes into their music and makes it impossible to dislike.

Having seen The Joy Formidable a month ago at Outside Lands Festival, I was surprised to see that on their return to the States they’d brought a lot more than just themselves and their instruments with them. The stage had multiple props including a back drop, some crystal-like decorations draped around singer Ritzy Bryan’s microphone stand, a couple of statues of howling dogs, and, most tantalisingly, a huge gong. It gave the stage a sort of Buddhist-garden look, especially when Bryan came on in a kimono-like outfit, but any thoughts of tranquillity in this space were shattered as soon as the band broke into “A Heavy Abacus.”

If, on the other hand, the garden was set up as an ode to the band’s zen-like concentration, then that would have made a lot more sense, especially in the case of drummer Matt Thomas. While Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd bring the energy and bombast to the performance, it’s Thomas’ drum skills that dictate the passage of the songs through their exaggerated loud-quiet dynamic. Of course Bryan herself carries the success of the show on her shoulders and does so strongly. During fiery speed-rockers like old favourite “Cradle” or relative obscurity in their shallow catalogue “Greyhounds in the Slips,” Bryan’s facial expressions, turning from wide-eyed excitement to a punk rock sneer in the blink of an eye, give away just how much she puts into the performance.

While the more up-tempo songs are the most fun for the crowd, the more interesting songs are their grandiose numbers like “The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade” and “Buoy,” which even touched on atmospheric rock and post-rock by the end when all three members took up percussion (Bryan finally banging the heck out of the gong). And then there is “Whirring,” which has been the band’s standard main set closing song for years now, having lost none of its intensity in that time. For many who are still seeing this band for the first time, it is the song they’ve been waiting for, and rightfully so, the trio ending the song by going on an all-out war against the crowd’s eardrums in a spectacular fashion.

After an encore break in which their engineer seemed to take a little too much time inspecting each instrument for those impatient for more, the band returned to play a couple more of the larger numbers from their debut album, The Big Roar, culminating in “I Don’t Want To See You Like This.” I was disappointed that they omitted “The Ever Changing Spectrum of a Lie,” and the complainer in me wonders how much more effort it would have been to play just once more song, but in the end no complaints can be had. The Joy Formidable proved once again that the answer to the question of how many times you can pull off the “song ending – psych – it’s really a rock out!” trick is as many times as you damn well please if you’re as good at it as they are.

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