The Joy Formidable used the anniversary as an excuse to play some intimate shows with some old deep cuts they don’t get to play very often.
Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
We as a people, and as art lovers, crave nostalgia like nobody’s business. Plenty of bands know this, which is why album anniversary shows – the “Play X in its entirety” varietal – are so much more common now than they used to be. It’s all too easy to talk about what to expect with those shows, but it’s also worth delving into what makes certain artists choose certain works to trot out for those tours. For every band that goes out and plays their debut 10 years on, there’s another that chooses a completely different, seminal work from their own catalog; Built to Spill aren’t going to pull out Ultimate Alternative Wavers anytime soon, but they’ve given that treatment to seminal works like Perfect From Now On (their third album) and Keep It Like a Secret (their fourth), and They Might Be Giants have almost made a second (or third) career out of playing Flood (their third LP) front-to-back or, in some cases, back-to-front.
Then we have Welsh three-piece The Joy Formidable, whose take on the nostalgia tour is a little stranger: instead of playing their 2011 debut The Big Roar, they’ve given this treatment to their 2008 debut “mini album” (read: EP) A Balloon Called Moaning. The reasons for this choice range from cynical (they can do the nostalgia grab a full three years early this way) to practical (Balloon came out three years earlier and half of it ended up on The Big Roar anyway), but honestly, any chance to see the band is entirely worth taking, especially in a room as intimate as the Doug Fir.
Half of the fun of seeing the band is their stage presence, which exists at odds with their shoegaze-tinged loudness. Frontperson Ritzy Bryan – a small-framed blonde woman with an enormous smile and a speaking voice like a grade school teacher – is a huge part of what brings me back to the band’s shows time and time again. Between songs, she’d share stories about touring or about drummer Matthew James Thomas (referred to largely as simply “Mr. Thomas,” which was irresistibly charming) joining the band around the time Balloon was recorded. The band’s lineup has remained unchanged since the EP’s release, meaning that the interpersonal chemistry between members has only gotten stronger in the last decade – which is obvious, but that chemistry was already dynamite when they were playing a Nike showcase at the Wonder Ballroom eight years ago.
The interplay between the borderline twee presence of the band and the way they actually sound is what lifts the band up past merely being very good and into a level of unmissable greatness. The whole of Balloon sounded excellent after a decade; again, four of these songs were on their hit debut and are now constant setlist staples, so there’s no real surprise there. The sold-out audience was ecstatic to hear “Whirring” and “Austere” as always, as well as newer cuts like “Caught on a Breeze” from 2018’s AAARTH or Wolf’s Law’s “The Leopard and the Lung.” They also pulled out “Silent Treatment” and dedicated it to someone in the audience, because – according to Bryan – he requests it every time they’re in town, but they always fuck it up.
Despite the main focus of the show being A Balloon Called Moaning, even with the band’s stories about their early days performing together, it was the least nostalgia-driven show I’ve yet to see – and that’s a very good thing. Nostalgia is a really fun thing to immerse yourself in, but it felt like the band’s aim wasn’t to be nostalgic; if anything, it felt like they used the anniversary as an excuse to play some intimate shows with some old deep cuts they don’t get to play very often. There wasn’t even the faintest whiff of disingenuous, money-minded hollowness that can come from some affairs like this, and frankly, it felt like a blueprint for how these shows should be.