Few pop musicians possess the creative drive of Gruff Rhys. As if his work with the Super Furry Animals weren’t enough on its own, his prolific solo work and collaborations on everything from the concept synthpop of Neon Neon to appearances alongside De La Soul on the Gorillaz’s “Superfast Jellyfish” prove that the the man is tough to pin down but easy to love. In his last two albums Rhys has focused on a psychelia-tinged Americana, but the stylistic choice is in the service of the themes he covers, whether it be the adventures of Welsh explorer John Evans along the Missouri in American Interior, or his more topical American dystopia in his latest album, Babelsberg.
True to his maximalist vision and energetic practicality, Gruff takes to the stage with a band, a slideshow, and his signature placards (including vintage SFA “GO APESHIT”). The first sign says “Side 1”, which gives you a pretty good idea of where the evening is going. Starting with the lush opener “Frontier Man”, Rhys tells the story of a national consciousness gone senile, and despite being pretty open about it (think of the song “Negative Vibes”) somehow avoids being a massive downer about it. His charm comes through even at his most cynical, and if you were feeling just a tinge melancholy as Side 2 winds to a close, the second half of the evening comes to the rescue.
Things take a more meditative turn with SFA track “Colonise the Moon”, replete with chiming guitars, a digital shruti box, and a roadie lighting incense sticks. The satyrical edge of the song is amplified by the noticeable discomfort in the drummer’s face as more and more sticks are lit, and no amount of hand signalling can divert the man from his task.
Rhys’s Welsh-language songs always seem to be his most joyful, and tonight is no exception, starting with the spaghetti-western-by-route-of-Bangor ‘Iolo’ to the “Hey Mickey”-inspired drums and vocals on “Gwn Mi Wn”. After this we are offered a choice: either some more “mediocre pop songs”, or, alternatively “a 20 minute crime drama”. Needless to say we all shout for “Skylon!”, a three chord riff that lays the foundation for the story of a bomb-disposal expert who saves a plane from a hijacker with a Semtex device disguised as a beer can (said device is carefully placed on the piano by the zealous roadie at the appropriate moment), and lives “unhappily ever after” with a mediocre tv personality he has been sitting next to.
As the night draws to a close, Rhys reminds us of his membership to the “Resist Phoney Encores” movement, leaving us with a wave and the last two cards: “The End” and “Thanks”.
Photos by Amanda Farah