If someone asked you in passing, "What kind of music does Joy Kills Sorrow play?" any simple categorization you rattled off to save time would likely fail to properly convey all the musical textures the group is capable of producing. Bluegrass? Acoustic folk? Sure, I guess those work. But anyone who heard the band perform on KHUM prior to their performance at the Arcata Theater Lounge knew to expect something more ambitious and nuanced than what you'd find at a West Virginia barn dance. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but this is different.
But first, is there a more relaxed place to enjoy music in Humboldt than the ATL? Someone knew what they were doing when they designed the way that room flows. As the opening act played, I considered grumping about having to leave the room to get my chicken wings and fries. Of course, I later realized that no one's musical geek-out time was distracted by anyone ordering chicken wings and fries. Someone is smarter than me.
About that opener. As an appetizer, the ATL served up the lovechild of Beck and Frank Zappa, current Man of La Mancha star John Ludington (see Stage Matters), who has to be considered one of the most daring and interesting songwriters on ye olde North Coast. The several times I've accidentally caught Ludington, I've assumed big things are on his eclectic horizon. On this night, accompanied by vocalist Andrea Zvaleko (also in La Mancha), John and guitar sauntered through some low-key selections before treating the crowd to my favorite Luding-tune... uh... I actually don't know the name of the song but it mentions a thong. So, for the purpose of this review, let's just say "The Thong Song" by John Ludington is worth seeking out.
When Joy Kills Sorrow took the stage, the first thing that demanded my eye was lead singer Emma Beaton. With her poof of curly, red hair and fairy-prom dress on acid, she certainly stood out in the dressed-down Humboldt Nation. But other than her appearance and an occasional flourish by mandolin magician Jacob Joliff, there is very little flashy about Joy Kills Sorrow. They are delightfully understated in their arrangements, songwriting and musicianship. Songs like "Eli" sound more akin to Sufjan Stevens than Bill Monroe. There are a handful of bands I've experienced live that produce an atmosphere that could lull you to sleep, not from boredom, but because you feel so comforted by the sounds and emotion filling the room. I'll add these guys to that playlist.
Judging by their playful onstage banter, Joy Kills Sorrow appear to be enjoying the ride they're on. If you get a chance to wrap yourself in the fuzzy, folk blanket they knit, I can promise you warmth.