SAN FRANCISCO — Some bands care about more than playing a terrific technically proficient show, and The Joy Formidable proved just that with an intimate set at Swedish American Hall Saturday that included plenty of jokes between songs — which they performed largely acoustically — that spanned the Welsh alt-rock trio’s career.
The concert was part of the band’s “Leave No Trace” tour, and vocalist-guitarist Ritzy Bryan said a tour just like this has been on the band’s to-do list for years. The trio had nothing but a few guitars and a kit of a three hand-drums and one cymbal, for drummer Matt Thomas, and the Swedish American Hall’s small stage would not have accommodated the band under any other setting. The decor was a teepee and campfire setting.
The trio kicked off the show with “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” the first song off their debut album. Immediately, Bryan, Thomas and Rhydian Dafydd proved this performance was like no other. Bryan raised a clenched fist to her heart, singing passionately, enunciating each word clearly, and communicating the emotion of the song on her face and with her eyes.
“Welcome to the campfire, we’ll keep you warm,” she said.
Thomas introduced the next song, “Little Blimp,” with a booming stadium announcer’s voice. (He was the comedic lead for this performance. Most of the jokes, whether planned or not, whether they hit home or not, all began with him. The three bobbed in their seats and wailed on their instruments—an electric and acoustic guitar for Bryan, guitars or a keyboard for Dafydd, and the percussion kit for Thomas.
The dynamism continued with “Blowing Fire,” off latest album Hitch. The sometimes funny, sometimes frivolous and flopping banter continued between each song. Dafydd shared the samples he downloaded onto his keyboard, which included Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” That was a repeating bit and theme.
“It’s like a magician coming out and showing how all the tricks are done,” Bryan joked.
The “All Star” bit did not land well. But the trio was way more successful with other jokes, especially if they seemed unrehearsed. “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” followed, and with this song the band began to veer from acoustic and sparser arrangements, to rock and roll. Even as the band members sat on stools and performed with no frills, Dafydd’s guitar roared across the small venue.
The banter continued after this song with a conversation about Frank Sidebottom, the comedic persona of Chris Sievey. Later topics of conversation would focus on Welsh name pronunciations, the band’s many causes. Some of those causes included saving the rain forest for orangutans, and making the following political statement: Don’t become apathetic to the state of the world, because hope is a marvelous strength. Rather than maintaining momentum, The Joy Formidable just wanted to have fun on stage.
The band played a terrific cover of Elvis Costello’s “Lip Service,” but “This Ladder is Ours” was more of a piano slow-burner than a raging rock track. The end of the main set was highlighted by the band’s biggest hit, “Whirring.” For emotional effect, Bryan slowed it down at the end only to build momentum back up. Even acoustically, this song still carried an immense depth.
The Joy Formidable, in the end, blew right past its allotted performance time, ending at nearly midnight. “Underneath the Petal” demonstrated how Bryan and Dafydd, formerly a couple, still have an intense shared musical mind. The two went back and forth, testing each other on guitar.
They continued to crack jokes, but by this point the humor was distracting the band from their performance, leading to multiple restarts. Luckily, the sheer genius and beauty of the songs pulled them through. The last song of the night completely blurred the line between acoustic and electric, and would have fit into a typical TJF gig.
Oakland band Everyone is Dirty opened the night with a performance by core duo Sivan Lioncub and Chris Daddio. Lioncub started with a violin concerto. Like the headliners, the two went back and forth and pushed each other for more energy with a swelling and settling of sound. Lioncub sang with a tender, vulnerable voice, but it was her violin that did all the speaking.
Emily Jane White played before the headliner. Musically, she was more than adequate on both the guitar, piano and behind the mic. But her set fell flat and felt more like a school audition as she kept switching between her instruments. White sang about love but could not make a connection with the chattering crowd.