April 24, 2013

The Joy Formidable – A Glorious Sonic Boom

“The mouse that roared” is a phrase that comes to mind after experiencing The Joy Formidable in a live setting.  That a three-piece band comprising mostly just one guitar, bass, and drums can produce such a massive wall of sound is both a pleasant and bludgeoning surprise.  What’s more remarkable is that amid this glorious sonic boom, the band coaxes so much melody and produces infectious songs that have an obvious pop sensibility.

 Opening with Cholla, the first single off their latest album Wolf’s Law, the band launched an aural attack that rarely abated.  The few moments of respite came when bassist Rhydian Dafydd played keyboard intros or acoustic guitar (Silent Treatment).  Lead singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan produces much of the aforementioned roar, but it’s Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas who keep the songs from derailing into noise with their precise and surprising groove.  Smartly, in a live setting Dafydd’s bass is turned up in the mix to give the song parts clarity and structure, and not just a low-end thumping.  While Bryan provides a great focal point to the band and Dafydd seems to navigate the proceedings, it’s Thomas who brings the fun rock & roll madness.  Watching his enthusiasm, technique, and humor (!), one can’t help but think of John Bonham, Keith Moon, Tommy Lee, and Animal from the Muppet Show.


Having seen them once before on their last tour in a relatively small church that doubled as a rock venue (!!!), it was fascinating to see their adaptability and growth as a band in a real rock club setting.  Their songs and musical ability are a given.  However, they upped their game by incorporating Rock Show elements like video projections and an omnipresent wolf logo whose lights changed colors.   

Musicians and non-musicians alike have an obnoxious penchant to compare every band to some other band – “Oh, so-and-so sound just like (fill in the blank)…”  From the band’s perspective this can be complimentary, derogatory, or sometimes just plain baffling.  Compliment or not, it’s often unfair to the band because it ignores the amount of personal creativity and work that went into producing the music, and reduces it to a comparison.  I make this admission as a disclaimer because I’m about to do exactly what I just got done railing…The Joy Formidable are reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins at their best…and what Sonic Youth tried to sound like (but never could).  I say it as a supreme compliment.

9:30 Club, Washington, DC, Set List

April 10, 2013

Fleetwood Mac: Living Up To The Legend

All too often, the legend of a band is better than the reality.  Luckily, for the nine-year old in me who first fell in love with Stevie Nicks from the gatefold of the Rumours album while listening to Dreams on a record player in my cousin’s basement all those years ago, Fleetwood Mac is a band that lives up to its legend.  Their performance at DC’s Verizon Center was stellar. 

The signature Mac sound remains wholly intact with no regard to the calendar.  The unmistakable rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie is still one of rock’s all-time finest, as the two practice what Keith Richards refers to as “the ancient art of weaving.”  Obviously, there’s also Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – soulmates who still harmonize the most endearing love songs one minute, and deliver the most viciously blistering barbs to each other the next.  The internal drama, soap opera, and emotional baggage also all remain palpably present.  Although with the passage of time, the band seems to approach their music and its inherent baggage with a sense of perspective, maturity, acceptance, and a whole lot of humor.  

A triple shot from Rumours – Second Hand News, The Chain, and Dreams – set the pace for the next two hours and forty minutes, as they performed hit after hit flawlessly from arguably the greatest catalog of the ’70s So-Cal Sound (…although The Eagles might take exception to that title).  Aside from all the ubiquitous hits, the band also debuted a new song, Sad Angel, that sounded as familiar and comfortable as any of their classics.  Buckingham’s solo turn with Big Love highlighted the fact that he might be the most underrated guitarist in rock.  Nicks took a non-Fleetwood Mac spotlight with her ‘80s solo hit Stand Back.  The evening’s best surprise was a pair of songs from the pre-Fleetwood Mac Buckingham-Nicks album.  The fact that hardcore fans have to resort to YouTube to hear this out-of-print pop gem of an album is criminal.       

The one obvious quibble with Fleetwood Mac’s show is that they overlooked all the Christine McVie hits.  While it would’ve been a fitting tribute to the retired McVie if they covered her songs, perhaps the omission also is recognition that she can’t be replaced.

It should be noted that the evening’s MVP Award goes to Fleetwood Mac’s sound engineers.  While arenas like the Verizon Center are designed primarily for sporting events – not for acoustics – on this evening, the band sounded like they were performing in a controlled studio.  To my recollection, no band has ever sounded so good in what’s essentially a hockey arena.  The sound engineers achieved perfect separation and balance between instruments and vocals on the loud songs, and on the quiet songs, you could hear a pin drop onstage.

Legend aside, perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s greatest achievement of the evening was living up to the wide-eyed expectations of my inner nine-year old. 
Set List