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The Joy Formidable @ U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, Summerfest

July 4, 2012

Jul. 5, 2012
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As a general rule, there's not much substance to be found in music festival stage banter, but The Joy Formidable lead Ritzy Bryan managed a few sharp insights during the rare pauses in the Welsh power trio's walloping set last night. Admitting she'd never heard of Summerfest before, she commended the festival for its scale, the diversity of its lineup, and ticket prices that make it accessible to everyone—a more perceptive summary of the festival's unique charm than anything drafted by Summerfest's own marketing team. And though she couldn't resist an easy beer and brats shoutout, hers came from a genuine admiration for Milwaukee's revelrous spirit, which she described as a welcome break from the reserved climate of Wales.

The Joy Formidable's music is, perhaps as much as anything, a response to that country's culture of polite restraint. In song after overheated song, Bryan stresses the frustration of failing to communicate. Every song is a last resort, a scream sent out because nothing else seems to be getting across. "I can see he says what he means / I can't say what he means when he says that," she puffs on "Cradle," from last year's monumental full-length debut The Big Roar, an album that channels the artful shoegazing sighs of M83 through the brute surge of alt-rock mega acts like the Foo Fighters. Behind Wale's buttoned-up air, Bryan's songs suggest, there's a lingering paranoia. Even in the company of a close lover on "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," her panicky mind considers "the dangers of showing any weakness." That track gives way to maybe the saddest of her many unheard cries: "Can't you see I'm good?"

All those pent-up anxieties boil over into an exhilarating display in concert. In her knee-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse, Bryan could have been mistaken for a librarian—not a sexy librarian, but an actual, storytime-reading children's librarian (she even addressed the audience in a soft, inside voice)—yet she performed with wild-eyed fervor, gallivanting across the stage like a waifish descendant of Gene Simmons, sometimes hopping on her drummer's kit while she shred at her guitar. She ended one song by beating a large, hanging drum—not for any real rhythmic end, just as a pure release; she ended the show by battering the same drum with her guitar. She may struggle to express herself in the real world, but on stage there was no mistaking what she was trying to say.


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