Gruff Rhys (Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, 17/09/14)

Written for NOISE CANNON.

Coming to the end of a true story that has unfolded throughout the main body of tonight’s set, he discusses how a man “got a bit of cholera. Things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse. They did get worse. He dies!” This was followed by roaring laughter from everybody. Something here is a little odd, but that is to be expected of Gruff Rhys.

Wales has all sorts of rural stereotypes, which you clearly thought of straight away when the words ‘Gruff Rhys’ met your eyes. Stop it. Now. It would be a horrifying cliché to write anything about Wales in a Gruff Rhys review. As would be mentioning his band Super Furry Animals. However, as Rhys takes to the stage in a (super) furry wolf skin hat, just to press play on an introductory video about a mythical Welsh explorer, it means that that damage has already been self-imposed. Showing an image of a hollowed log used as a boat, he shamelessly notes, “these boats are how people get to work in West Wales. He’s going to the bank.”.

Ordinarily, a term like ‘multimedia experience’ would call for spectacular, kaleidoscopic light shows, hypnotising an audience on a theatrical scale. It’s the kind of term used to describe a ‘4D’ film at Disneyland. However, Rhys manages to fulfil the term with minimal resources (just one man, a few music gizmos and a guitar) and do all of mesmerising with maximum charm and creativity in the 400-capacity Wedgewood Rooms.

While not so massive onstage, tonight’s show is part of the highly ambitious American Interior project (consisting of a concept album, a film, a book and even a phone app), telling the true story of 18th Century Welsh explorer John Evans, who ventured over the Atlantic and into the titular American Interior in search of an alleged Welsh-Native Indian tribe.

Sat alone onstage, beside Rhys is a table containing a few musical toys, such as a sampler, a metronome and a record player to provide him and his guitar some backing. Before ‘Lost Tribes’, he warns the audience of sound quality, as he begins the backing track vinyl record, after all they “don’t always sound that classy. That’s a disclaimer.” There is also a slideshow on a screen by his side, with photographs of a John Evans cuddly toy, taken on site to cover his journey. Sort of. Unless Rhys really is suggesting that Evans traveled on the London Underground and took a break at Starbucks in 1777 (or ‘the year of three pickaxes’ as Rhys referred to it).

No matter how conceptual this all is, Rhys seems confident to make a mess, as though things were going wrong every few minutes. With two songs, he had already thrown his harmonica onstage. A couple of songs later, he introduced the cuddly toy of Evans, only to then throw him straight off the stage (“Awww!” – The audience), before bringing ‘him’ back onstage on his very own chair. (“Hooray!” – The audience) Throughout the show, Gruff communicated with placards, which ended up scattered across the stage. A serious track from the tale, entitled ‘Iolo’ (unfortunately pronounced ‘yolo’) provoked a giggle, followed by a slightly uncomfortable squirm as some aren’t sure whether they were meant to snigger. However, the bumbling nature of the night says that every wobble is planned, making it a brilliant performance, and not just a lecture.

Rhys puts on a hilarious, and quirkily educational show – a unique enough experience to justify coming to the front of the stage, at the end of heartfelt yet tongue-in-cheek closer ‘Honey All Over’, take a bow with a card climactically confirming “THE END”.



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