Tonight is a night for memorable encounters, both familiar and foreign. It’s All Hallows Eve, a time for pagan rituals, the collection of diabetes-inducing fructose, and the celebration of the Celtic harvest. It’s a night for rock and roll.
They’re not exactly Celtic, but there may be no more rocking rock band out there these days than the Welsh trio The Joy Formidable. They’re contending for the title of “Hardest Working Band in Rock and Roll” as well, this being the umpteenth time they’ve swung through Washington, D.C. in the past few years. They’re always worth seeing, from benefit shows in churches to festivals to headlining clubs, to this slot, opening for Passion Pit at a capacious year-old venue, Echostage.
Echostage primarily hosts EDM events, and an eyeball estimate of the 40,000 square foot former warehouse indicates that it accommodates around 2,500 people. It’s a very cool space, modern and sleek with the large stage facing out towards a massive floor and looked down upon by a 15′ high or so balcony that surrounds 4/5 of the remaining space. And, as TJF takes the stage, it’s about 1/3 full. No matter their venue, no matter their crowd, the trio does one thing and does it exceptionally well: they rock.
It’s an abbreviated set, the band not even getting a full half-hour to display their virtuosity to the gathering masses. They blow through their allotted time with lights that are largely static, neither aiding nor abetting the overall impact of their power chords. Even the effusive band rocking and bobbing and weaving about stage needs a little help with the theatrics, a stage this size requires it.
As usual, though, TJF brings their own theatrics. Today, they include Matthew James Thomas fittingly beating the skins like an animal, since on this night where costumes are customary he stands before us as “Mr. Wolfie.” His aggression is majestic, majestic in that way that where royalty uses its army to destroy the opposition. Ritzy Bryan is a bit more reserved than normal, so the focus switches towards Wolfie as he smashes the gong during the orgiastic finale. As has become de rigeur for their sets, their extended version of “Whirring” is the prelude to an execution, it’s an epic jailbreak, gaining speed and fury and vanquishing the captors of convention and couth. There are only two ways they might improve…to play longer and to smash the pumpkins adorning the amps with unbridled nihilism as they leave the stage.
Photos: Katherine Gaines
It’s noticeably humid in the cavernous room as they depart, the room now 2/3 full and 1/3 costumed. The break lasts longer than necessary, further proving that TJF should have been granted additional stage time. Finally, Passion Pit takes the stage to the sounds of female screams, the type that The Beatles heard, only in the slightly lower pitch that emerges after tweens turn into sorority girls.
They decide to jump right into the hits, raising the room’s buoyancy to levels that will prove hard to match. A particular synth part — of which there are many — could perhaps be traced to that Weezer side-project, The Rentals. Other parts are more along the lines of what fellow electropop successes like Cut Copy have deployed to popular acclaim. It’s striking that many of the synth parts don’t need to be performed by synths; a live baritone sax, for example, might enhance the dynamic of future performances.
That aside, Michael Angelakos (a fellow former Buffalonian) looks happy, beaming as the audience responds, unprompted, “Oh noooooo. Oh noooooo.” This is no small thing, clearly, as anyone who knows his gripping story can attest. (This will most likely be the only time we’ll ever refer readers to Pitchfork…read it, it’s incredible).
He does something that was once rare; he speaks to the crowd between songs, speaks, as in, says more than the perfunctory “Thank you” he’s been known to utter in the past. He discusses the band’s costumes, saying that while he may look normal, he’s actually a serial killer, which we’d know if we had a black light handy. He’s right, though…he looks completely normal, the turmoil stirring beneath the facade / costume well-hidden. More normal than his bandmates dressed as Sebastian Bach or Axl Rose or something along those lines, at least, and prompting Angelakos to crack, “I’ve never been so attracted to my band members.”
His iterations also serve to conjure up that Pavement lyric, “What about the voice of Geddy Lee / How did it get so high / I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy / (I know him, and he does!).” It’s an obvious and usually unstated question regarding Angelakos’ falsetto and whatever effects are on his mic, and it’s almost unsettling to hear the extreme normalcy of his speaking voice.
It’s a pretty normal sample of society in the crowd, as far as these things go at concerts and on Halloween. The room’s aroma is that of suburban girl perfume, its attire often a sexualization of normal professions that range from World War II naval nurses to 21st century ICU nurses. (A guy dressed as Warhol‘s banana from The Velvet Underground album wins, with the guy dressed as Bill Cosby a close second).
It has become increasingly rare to see a glass-caged drummer, but, hey, maybe tonight features a regular drummer dressed-up as a glass-caged drummer. He draws focus whenever they employ that synth/drum combo they’ve helped popularize along with bands like The Naked and Famous. They slickly transition into a slow jam, with a Windows 3.1 screen-saver projected behind them that is the antithesis of slick. And it’s at this juncture where the question first arises, “Does the drum cage interfere with the drummer’s ability to adequately listen and respond to the stage’s goings-on?” His drumming seems set to one level — 10 — even when the band has temporarily turned the amps down a few notches. There’s something to be said for crescendo, particularly in songs like “Moth’s Wings,” and its lacuna is the most prominent element of the show that could use polish. That, and finishing songs with flourish, something that is much more important when the crowd spends most of its time dancing along and wants to stay in step with the band throughout, ending with conjoined finality.
Their genius is in their uplifting pop anthems, songs that are often more musically effervescent than they are lyrically. What Passion Pit does as well as anyone is craft sing-a-long, arms-in-the-air anthems that their audiences respond to with uniform glee. The crowd jumps, singing out “Sylvia!” during “Cry Like a Ghost,” before displaying a bit of a schizo attitude and sitting back in-between the choruses. This isn’t a crowd looking for ballads, they’re here to party.
The evening takes on a surreal moment during “Take a Walk,” becoming oh-so meta as cell phones provide the predominant view of the show. The question again begs itself…how many of these no-budget concert videos are ever revisited, how many of these musical moments are diminished by the once-removed nature they have taken-on?
They close the set with perhaps their best — if not most listened to — song, “Sleepyhead.” Its Fat Boy Slim-ish opening sample meets steady, rhythmic drumming more appropriately attenuated to the moment. The composition employs that previously missing crescendo, bringing the party to a boil and sending at least one over-served patron running to the bathroom as the thumping bassline beats its way through our bowels.
The set ends at an hour, quite short for a headliner at this price point. The costumed quintet re-emerges, though, backlighted with arms raised and pumping in man-made shadows. They have two tricks left, at least one of which that will try to equal the moment recently passed. To close, they unleash one of those danceable singles as fireworks are projected behind them, creating another sing-a-long moment. They’ve done their part, and two thousand people exit past the strip club next door in search of transportation and the next party, “Higher and higher and higher” echoing into the evening, earworming itself into memory.
Photos: Katherine Gaines