The Joy Formidable - Koko London
I hail the next small town over in North Wales from the one where The Joy Formidable's Rhydian Dafydd and Ritzy Bryan grew up, although I never knew them before becoming aware of their music. Two years ago may seem like the olden days but back in September 2008, MySpace was still king. A buzz was afoot. I went with my good friend Tom to Wrexham, the next next small town over the hills, to see TJF playing in the bar of a local venue. There were another two bands on (don't ask me who), and along with those other band members, we were the audience. We were blown away by what I described at the time as 'a wall of glorious fuzzy feedback'. The way that Tom and I were hooked is how it's been with TJF. Others had the same experience. A pro photographer I know in Manchester went to shoot Howling Bells, decided to nip into the pit to grab some shots of the support - TJF of course - and has been one of their biggest advocates since.
I'm not claiming to be their most frequent flyer. Koko was merely the thirteenth time I've seen them in two years, and trust me, with the loyalty this band engender, that is chicken feed. Months after that first night in Wrexham we saw them in another northern town. I won't name names to protect the guilty, but idiot promoters had kept them waiting to play so far into the small hours that again it was me, Tom and half a dozen others. On that occasion they ripped into it with total energy, and that's how it's been every single time. 120% dedication no matter who or how many are there to see them.
The three of them, Rhydian on bass, guitarist/singer Ritzy and Matt Thomas on drums are some of the nicest people in UK music, always happy to sign that poster you've just stolen off a wall, or just to chat. At a time when peers were accepting the corporate dollar, then flashing in the pan, these three have stuck to the long game of doing it their own way. Matt has been with the band about a year. He replaced a perfectly nice drummer called Justin and has become hugely more than just a beat engine, now fully part of the ongoing development of the sound. This can't have been easy, given the close history of the two Rs who used to spend time walking the North Wales hills working out their musical voice. But it is now firmly a family of three, musically anyway. Over the past two years, I have barely understood how they have managed to keep going, choosing as they did to give their music away rather than enter into deals they might have regretted later.
There were indications. When I was begging a drum stick as a souvenir like some lovesick teenybopper, Matt made sure he gave me a limp thing with no life whatsoever left to squeeze out of it. This was at a free gig in London and I was struck again by how much they were doing this for love not profit, often at their own expense. Still, the critical mass grew, and when I saw them headline a sold out Electric Ballroom earlier this year, I saw them step up from a developing band to being genuine rock stars in waiting. Signing with Canvasback meant that Ritzy finally got a new guitar. The headline position on the NME tour, and the constant photos of the band in that self-same magazine marked another step up.
All of which brings us to a Thursday night in Camden, the final night of that headline tour, and a packed Koko. This was the first time I have seen them and not been in the front two rows, which is out of character for me. Tonight I was content to watch from the middle tier of three balconies, and enjoy the crowd as much as the band. Of course they've developed, you can't play this much without that happening, and it is now very driven percussive rock music, still with that wonderful fuzzy wall of sound. The attitude has never wavered, and even from the back of the hall, I could feel Ritzy's intense stare from under that blond mop. The crowd up front was young, and I was glad to see that. It used to be 75% old farts like me. "There's some of your people, Dad" my daughter taunts as another middle-aged bloke rocks out. There were some of my representatives in the mosh, but also familiar faces from gigs gone by up here in the gods, also apparently now happy to stand back and watch. The biggest crowd uproar still comes for their oldest songs, which makes me half trepidatious for their new album, the first proper one, reportedly all recorded and waiting to come out.
The reason I usually hate being away from the front of the stage is that too often, I don't feel involved. There was no fear of that tonight, I eventually found myself leaning precariously out over space, hoarsely singing along "How come it's all around me...It's clear... I've squeezed the last drop...."
It's been a little while coming, if only due to doing things right, but stand by for imminent greatness.