30th September | Rough Trade
Photos: Jeff Oram
“We have never done it like this before, so lets see how it goes,” Rhiannon said nervously about the set. And the front woman of The Joy Formidable was right. This type of intimate setting isn’t what the Welsh rock trio are used to. With their stadium-scale riffs and complex atmospherics, it’s a difficult transition to tone that down, but in a series of smaller shows across the UK they are doing just that. There was something charming and enchanting about watching a band find their feet in a new setting like this. ‘This Ladder of Ours’ provided the perfect example of showing how well they adapted to this environment. The surprising thing was that even with just a piano, drums and a guitar, the emotional urgency that many of their songs revel in was left completely untouched.
Considering it was the day after the release of their fourth album, Aaarth, they seemed to be at ease as they delved further into the show, with Rhiannon injecting dry humour across the board: from why bringing a piano along on tour would be a “pain in the arse” to a bizarre story that played out about ‘sock coffee’. For all her bemusing anecdotes, she transformed tracks like ‘Y Bluen Eire’ and ‘The Wrong Side’ into transfixing gems. Her breathy vocal effortlessly commanded attention in a room of dozens of people, rather than the hundreds they are used to. Taking this opportunity at this stage of their career is an admirable move. Many groups at the stage they are at now only want to keep going up in scale, but debuting their new record live in such close quarters made it so much more special.
There was a notable absence of The Big Roar throughout the set, their second album that changed everything and launched them into the stratosphere. With just the two singles from the record, ‘Whirring’ and ‘Cradle’ appearing, it felt like they were finally comfortable enough to shake off the need to play the hits. These tracks sounded as epic as ever, despite the lack of meaty guitars.
What struck was the glowing self-assurance bottled into their new songs. Aaarth ushers in a new era for the band, and introducing us to the album this way was a brave move. The acoustic reworks glittered with promise, stripped away the eclectic experimental elements and took them down to the bare bones. Old favourite, ‘Cradle’ proved to be the most upbeat moment of the night, throwing together thudding drums and lightly-plucked strings, led along with Rhiannon’s playful vocal melody.
Out of all the tender moments offered up through the night, it was ‘The Better Me’ that stood out as perhaps the most well-crafted organic performance. Some fans may have missed the sense of spectacle, as it what they were used to from previous concerts. But that wasn’t what the night was about.
Playing their latest album without any of their trademark bombast, that they so often blow crowds away with, could have been a mistake. But if anything, it highlighted the quality of the new material and showed us that sometimes it is better to strip down to rehearsal level and lay it bare. The biggest takeaway from the Rough Trade gig was that a band like The Joy Formidable doesn’t always need to be loud to be heard.