Keyboardist and occasional guitarist Erick Eiser spent the show trapped in a “V” of synthesizers; he also liked to slam on his instrument as hard as possible. He gave the impression of a wild animal in a cage. While he was often fun to watch, his persona was a little off-putting and caused the occasional mistake. But on the whole the synths were a nice addition to The Dig’s sound, adding a warm glow to the (relatively) quieter songs or a dancy bass line when it was needed.
The Joy Formidable, the show’s headliner, played a tight, rockin’ set to a euphoric audience. Their post-punk rock has overtones of Muse, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Boxer Rebellion. On most of their songs, frontlady Ritzy Bryan repeated a few heavily distorted chords above Matt Thomas’s vigorous drum patterns while Rhydian Dafydd wormed around the beat on his bass. Bryan’s gripping vocals serve as the glue to the group. They provide the extra weight that carries the band and makes them so fun and so interesting to listen to.
In an unconventional move, Thomas’s drum set was moved to the front of the stage, and during the performance he faced Bryan and Dafydd. This turned out to be a good move; Thomas was amazingly vivacious, and I spent most of The Joy Formidable’s set watching him play.
Both The Dig and The Joy Formidable were great – but it was the second opener, Grouplove, that stood out of the pack.
The members of Grouplove first met each other in, of all places, Greece. According to the band’s website, a duo of New Yorkers, Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi, ran into a Londoner (Sean Gadd), a pro surfer from LA (Andrew Wessen) and his childhood friend/drummer/producer Ryan Rabin in a remote town in Crete. They were so moved by the process of making music together that, soon after scattering back home, they pooled their money and everyone made their way to LA to record an album.
The love they have for each other, and for the music they make, is evident. Often, such as in “Don’t Say Oh Well,” Grouplove writes about just how close they are (“I told my bandmates/ They are my soulmates”). And while Zucconi and Hooper do most of the singing, Sean Gadd and Andrew Wessen join in often for backup vocals, occasional call and response moments, and to whoop and holler along for joy. Last night, when not singing, Zucconi and Hooper danced in circles around each other. A smile never left Ryan Rabin’s face. Their natural warmth was infectious, and – at least from where I was standing – the Ballroom was glowing. Grouplove, indeed.
Grouplove’s songs are moving in their unadorned honesty and their effortless joy. They sing about love, simple pleasures, and friendships. Energetic drumming and folky guitars back the band’s tight harmonies and memorable melodies, with the occasional mandolin joining in on the fun. Most of their songs are at an easy walking speed with a light bounce, and just ask to be danced to.
However, lest you think that Grouplove is an endless font of happiness, they do have a dark side. On “Colours,” a song (to put it too simply) about mysterious and painful changes, Zucconi’s powerful voice was at its most sorrowful, and most effective. Another song, “Gold Coast” begins with a brooding electronic beat and builds up to the bleak question, “When you feel despair/ what’s your method to get out of there?” “Gold Coast” is Grouplove’s most lyrically complex song, showcasing another side of their songwriting ability. It was also the best song of the night.
The crowd at the Ballroom was almost exclusively there to see The Joy Formidable, but Grouplove got more than its fair share of enthusiastic applause. At the end of their set, as everyone waited impatiently for They Joy Formidable to take the stage, I heard one guy behind me remark that he usually can't stand sitting through the opening acts – “but these guys were pretty good.”