Monday, February 14, 2011

The Joy Formidable

The O2 Academy in Leicester is what’s known on the UK gigging circuit as an “intimate venue”.

What this means is that when things really hot up, everyone gets to writhe in their own sweat like fish in the bowels of some haul-rich trawler while a handful of Oxygen atoms diffuses at speed through every available lung.

Call me smart, but for last night’s Joy Formidable gig, I took along a wetsuit (complete with snorkel) and a packet of hi-energy digestive biscuits to soak up the mosh pit.

Sadly, the promised new state-of-the-art Academy facilities had been hijacked by a student performance of The Mikado and I was ushered round the back of the building along with my gigging partner, Vader, by security men clearly developing their muscles for the wealth of job opportunities the inevitable Big Society riots will bring them.

“You’re in the Old Queens Hall,” they said (though not in unison — that’s barber shop quartets, not posses of hard men clad in fluorescent yellow jackets).

Ah yes, the Old Queens Hall. Many happy memories: The Sundays, Curve, Mallard Hopper — and Doug “Goose Breath” Contusion & His All-Walsall Sugar Rush Ensemble.

Vader and I arrived just as the last power chords of support band, Airship, resounded round the wood-panelled walls. It’s an odd gig venue, the Old Queens Hall — a cross between a thirties lecture theatre or library and a showroom for some Elizabethan Ikea — and tonight, they’d clearly toned down the lights out of respect for President Mubarak’s departure to create a Tutankhamun’s Tomb chic. As ever with Uni gigs, the queue for the bar spawned rows, columns and tiers — but this time, only as far as the ladies’ loos. Just water for me and Vader, it seemed, along with some bog roll to light the way back to the stage.

By 8.30 it was time to strap on my snorkel ready for the headline act when support band #2 surprised me by striding onto the tiny stage radiating gloom like Lee Evans sweats. Music is very much a matter of taste and what some love, others hate. In the case of The Chapman Family, there was too much pain and anguish for my liking — just a tad more, and I might have become the only survivor of the UK’s first terrorist-free mass suicide.

When Stockton-on-Tees’ finest were done, Vader and I entertained ourselves with a selection of pre-headline act pastimes such as Guess The Sex Of The Weirdo, Stick The Blu Tak On The Bald Guy’s Head and Que est-ce que Doth Yon Stage Set Signify? This last one, we played for a good twenty minutes, and after studying the curious arrangement of twisted wooden sculptures and lights at the back of the stage, Vader won with knock-down Christmas decoration cargo shipwrecked off the coast of Anglesey.

Then suddenly...

For a three-piece, The Joy Formidable possess a very big sound indeed and from the moment they powered up their distinctive throb I suspected the stage set concealed the Llanelli Community Gimp, complete with tambourine, maracas and an uncontrollable desire to make merry. That’s when I began to feel a little conspicuous in my wetsuit.

From the outset, lead singer Ritzy Bryan mesmerised the crowd with her deft facial antics. All frontwomen possess some degree of charisma, described variously as “electrifying”, “sexy” or “hypnoticalistic” — or, in James Blunt’s case, “dispensed with a wickerwork ladle” — but Bryan has a quirkily unique appeal which sets her apart from other alluring Welsh peroxide blondes with beautifully defined patellae. One minute, she’d be rocked right back, guitar on hip, in the throes of a glowing smile as if trusting an invisible Snowdonian rhino to support her svelteness, while the next, she’d be staring the crowd down with the ferocity of a football hooligan in a wig, all the time hoovering up attention like a gorgon hungry for novelty garden gnomes. Allied to her luminous vocals and thrill-spangled manipulation of the fretboard, her considerable front makes Ritzy Bryan a force to be reckoned with.* When big time success comes (as it MUST), even the most humongous of venues will struggle to swallow her a limb at a time, let alone whole.

* Ok, I confess — I constructed this last sentence from cut-ups of the NME like Bowie used to do with his lyrics (and most of his clothes).

Throughout the gig, bassist Rhydian Daffyd divided his energies equally between punching out the band’s distinctive rhythm, slapping buttocks with Ritzy during frequent Strictly-style mock tangos, and inciting the crowd into a wild frenzy as if he were a Frankenstein hybrid of crazed gym instructor and devilishly cunning pirate captain — only with a mains hookup to his bass rather than his neck and a neat black shirt instead of matching lycra boxers, eyepatch, and irritating bird of paradise. Such a shame Leicester’s gene pool still reels from the “zest debt” it built up spawning Gok Wan’s insufferable hairdo. Wild, wild frenzies there were, but regrettably, it was the rage of lettuce. Just one soul braved the barrier and clambered onto the stage, and had this been Birmingham, Manchester or Cardiff, he’d have mobbed Ritzy to within two slobber-free square inches of her dinky dress fabric as she twanged away on her AXE — or thrown himself backwards into a hastily arranged circle of no-one. As it was, he blundered around for a second or two like someone waking from a thirty year coma in the pet food aisle of Morrisons before being bundled offstage by a roadie.

By far the bulk of the night’s energy, drive and wildness was supplied by drummer, Matt Thomas. He’d been issued with a fetchingly trendy Gallic hooped top which might easily have been mistaken for a fashion statement had he been a poncy keyboardist or pointless backing vocalist-cum-limbodancer-cum-twat, but when your role is to pound out a stick-to-skin onslaught of relentless riddim for well over an hour, top of your list of essentials has to be a reliable tool for WORKING OUT WHICH WAY UP IS, and with Ritzy bobbing around like an enraged Lulu and Rhydian giving it the Full Johnny Depp On A Treadmill while you pound, pound, pound, pound, pound, wearing a hooped shirt is far preferable to having a spirit level nailed to your tits. Unusually for a drummer, Matt was positioned to the very right of the stage, but such was the ferocity of his paraflamallantisiliogochgochgochadiddles during the course of the set that he ended up over on the left with his legs in the air and smoke trailing from his cymbals like some hapless WWII kamikaze pilot had flown through a temporal worm hole and thought, “hey, The Joy Formidable are fucking brilliant.”

It’s most unlike me to quote imaginary (and unfortunate) 20th century Japanese aviators with a penchant for self-harm, but I’m having that one tattooed just above my belly button. The moment I first heard this band — relatively late in the day in Feb 2009, I’m ashamed to say — I knew they were destined for great things. Last night, they proved me right. My only disappointment as of now is that unless the Earth is gobbled up by a galaxy-sized whale-like monster hunting temporal worms to supplement the plankton, this is probably the last time I’ll get to see them at an “intimate venue”.

A shame — but as another of Leicester’s famous sons, Gary Lineker, would say: “Whirl, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about...”


Scarlet Blue said...

Ok, I confess — I constructed this last sentence from cut-ups of the NME like Bowie used to do with his lyrics (and most of his clothes).

Yes, I had figured this... nice technique though!

Whirlochre said...

And very nice trousers too, some of them (albeit a little on the baggy side to actually wear in Tesco).