Live Review: The Joy Formidable with More Humans at St. Stephen’s Church, Washington DC – 10th November 2012

By on Friday, 16th November 2012 at 2:00 pm

It’s pretty unbelievable where The Joy Formidable find themselves today, when I stopped to consider the first time I had seen them live. After a heady and massive personal endorsement from Dave Grohl and having gone on worldwide tours as support for Foo Fighters, the Welsh band profile has grown by leaps and bounds.

Just like the Script who were here last week, the first time I’d seen the Joy Formidable live in Washington was at a very emotional time of my life, in November 2010. Thinking about it now, that gig at Black Cat Backstage wasn’t actually that much different the Saturday night show, in that it felt like a more relaxed affair than things that go on, say, at the 9:30 Club. When this gig at St. Stephen’s was first announced, I wasn’t sure how a church in Northwest would fare as a venue for a decidedly hard rock band; instead of actually performing in the sanctuary as we’d seen folks like the Airborne Toxic Event and Laura Marling do in years past at Sixth and I synagogue, the Joy Formidable’s show ended up taking place in what looked like the church’s all purpose rec room. The last time the band were in town, they were opening for Foo Fighters at our Verizon Center sports arena; this place was a far cry from that, with panels of racks of light bulbs obscuring what appeared to be stone work with religious imagery on it. (When in Rome…)

The show took place under the auspices of H Street club the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel and Positive Force, a local action group who describes themselves as “an activist collective seeking radical social change, personal growth, and youth empowerment.” Don’t be scared by that label though; they’ve been putting shows on in this very church for years, and it was revealed by the night’s emcee that it was at St. Stephen’s that Fugazi played their second show, ever. So to be standing there, surrounded by years of music history past, was a very cool feeling indeed.

When we first got into the place, there was a paltry number of people who had arrived early, presumably more to make sure they were close to the front than to actually catch the opening band. The temperature was just about perfect: not too hot, not too cold without a jacket on. The support for the night was local band More Humans, who we guessed must be congregants, as their lead singer mentioned that the church hosted their album release party there last year. They turned out to be a hard-rocking, semi-prog band that fit perfectly with the headliner. One of the highlights of their set was the song ‘Dracula’, which also has a very cute promo video you can watch below.


And then when the rec room became rammed, it started to feel like a sauna. It probably would have been more appropriate for everyone there to be in swimsuits and not in jumpers, coats and boots, as what a November winter in DC usually dictates. Despite the location or the stifling heat, what remained unchanged between all three times I’ve seen the Joy Formidable perform live was the sheer energy of their show, equally in physical and emotional terms. I joked on Twitter the other day that even 2 days after the show, my neck was still sore from the self-induced whiplash caused by headbanging during their songs. (This was then applauded by the band. Haha.) If you like this kind of music, I don’t see how you wouldn’t sustain this kind of injury. On album and even more so when you are in their presence, the Joy Formidable bring a searing, in your face, balls to the wall experience.


Saturday night was no exception. The band explained to me after the show that this was a short, hastily arranged “radio tour” to stop in a few of their favourite cities to talk up ‘Wolf’s Law’, their new album out in January 2013. The band wrote and recorded the album primarily during a period of holing up in Portland, Maine during a snowstorm and that they couldn’t wait to show off their new material. On this night, we got treated to four new songs. The single ‘Cholla’ (video above), with what I guess to be a reminder of the real Cholla in the form of a horse figure that sat on Ritzy’s pedal board and ‘This Ladder is Ours’, whose promo video was just released days ago, were blinding in person.

‘Maw Maw’ (or at least how it was stated on the set list) was the band’s Led Zeppelin moment, with equally punishing guitar and drums. This rtack stood in stark contrast with encore starting point ‘Silent Treatment’, which featured bassist Rhydian Dafydd playing a spare melody on acoustic guitar to accompany Ritzy Bryan’s ever fragile voice. It was a reminder that even though they’re known as a hard rock band, they do have a softer side. They’re not all noise and no substance, as stated in some misinformed comments I read after their first appearance at SXSW in 2011.

While it was surprising to hear my personal favourite ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’ followed by ‘I Don’t Want to See You Like This’ right out of the gate, it set the stage for a night of hard-hitting tunes that never let up, except for the aforementioned acoustic ‘Silent Treatment’. And maybe that’s best for the Joy Formidable. When I ran the word “punishing” in an online thesaurus just now as I was typing this, “formidable” appeared as a synonym. As it should.

I wasn’t sure how they could top ‘Whirring’ to close out the set, but I shouldn’t have worried. The band brought out ‘The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie’ to leave everyone there feeling like they’d just seen the best show of their lives. I will leave you with what I think are the best lyrics of the song, as for me, one of the most powerful moments of the show. You are free to interpret this in a bunch of different ways, but the imagery of letters written and blood along with love bounded by lies…beautiful in its pain, and just breathtaking. Do yourself a favour and see this band live, you won’t regret it.

My love
Love is the everchanging spectrum of a lie,
A lie to hide behind when nothing’s right
You take form with ink and blood
Can’t you see I’m good???

After the cut: the Joy Formidable’s set list. Below is a video of ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ EP track ‘Ostrich’.


The Joy Formidable Set List:

The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade
I Don’t Want to See You Like This
This Ladder is Ours
A Heavy Abacus
Silent Treatment (acoustic)
The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie

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2 Responses

[…] the Joy Formidable at St. Stephen’s Church (Saturday 10th November 2012) – the Welsh band have consistently placed in my top 5 gigs of the last 2 years; last year […]

[…] was adorable. Once upstairs, I fell in love with the space, which was as low-key and disarming as the multi-purpose room at DC’s St. Stephen’s Church. I soon learned this was the same infamous space where fans had crammed themselves in last summer at […]

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