For a supposed solo show, Gruff Rhys brings along a pretty big band. Though billed on posters as a one-man revue, Rhys has nonetheless brought along more than his fair share of friends: to his right is Lisa Jen, a wily Welsh folk singer who provides percussion, soaring backing vocals, and the occasional plink of the xylophone. Sitting on the table in front of them is drummer ‘Kevin’, who looks and sounds suspiciously like a CD player filled with pre-programmed beats. Perched nonchalantly, and somewhat perilously, at the front edge of the table is Nigel, a metronome used as the ticking backing track for the folk implosion that is “Lonesome Words”. And, nestled amongst Kevin and Nigel is a vast array of nameless toys and noisemakers—including kids’ keyboards and fluorescent plastic trumpets. It looks like someone ransacked a Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s even a contraption that could double as a 7-11 Big Gulp, which, apparently, has the ability to capture thunderstorms and recreate them onstage. And then there’s Gruff Rhys, the ringmaster, who uses a sampler to split himself seven ways and then some. Perhaps “solo show” isn’t the right description after all.
Rhys has never been one to toe the line. As frontman for Welsh psychedelic popsters the Super Furry Animals, he has, over the course of 15 years and eight albums, donned a yeti costume, sung through the eye of a Power Ranger’s helmet, and finished shows with a song that drops the f-bomb over 50 times. (And that’s just the tip of that band’s elaborate non-conformist iceberg.) Rhys not only defies musical conventions, he disavows them. Who else would encore with a repetitive, two-chord, 15-minute tune? Or stop a song halfway through, as he did with “Pwdin Ŵy Part 1,” to tell us how it sounds on record compared to live (“On the record it sounds like Prince, but tonight it’s just me”)? And who else would sample himself silly, so much so, that as vocals and carefully layered percussion float around the room, bouncing off each other like bumper cars, he can pretend to take a nap on stage?
We’re also privy to a saxophone impersonation, several Welsh songs, and a right-handed guitar, which Gruff, who is left-handed, plays upside down with the heavy strings at the bottom. So, while ‘solo’ may be a questionable adjective, ‘show’ is definitely an operative word.
After tuning his unique guitar (for our “optimum listening pleasure”), Rhys, seated behind his table of gadgets, kicks off the set by covering Meic Stevens—a folkie from the ’60s who’s often referred to as the Welsch Bob Dylan. The multilingual opening shouldn’t surprise us. Welsh, after all, is Rhys’ first language, and while his second solo album, Candylion, was mostly in English, his debut, 2005’s Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, was recorded in his native tongue. It’s fitting, then, that tonight, in a city surrounded by suburbs with names like Bryn Mawr, Bala Cynwyd, and Gladwyne, it’s the Welsh songs that shine—melodically efficient with an added allure of mythological folklore. The difference in dialects is exemplified by “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru”, which Rhys introduces as a song about the “monotony of driving.” Its title (and repetitive melodic refrain) is a direct translation of “Driving Driving Driving”. After playing four bars of an impromptu English-language version, Rhys breaks into the original and, in doing so, demonstrates how something monotonous and mundane can sound majestic in Welsh.
That’s not to say his English songs aren’t melodic. “Candylion”, accented by Lisa Jen’s xylophone, is a perfect encapsulation of pop that manages to be twee without seeming overtly saccharine, while “Lonesome Words” mines traditional folk music for its melodic bent.
But even with these Anglo-Saxon highs, it’s fair to say that the foreign songs, of which there are several, are the ones that work best. “Con Corino”, sung in Spanish, is hauntingly beautiful. Despite the delicate nature of the song, Rhys—backed only by an undercurrent drone and sedate xylophone—still manages to be playful, executing an extended coda that finds him singing nonsensical lines such as “I vomited throughout your saxophone solo,” before performing his own ad hoc saxophone impersonation.
Undeterred by the small crowd and latent jet lag, Rhys is remarkably affable throughout the evening and, despite his laconic approach to language (each word is carefully considered and conspicuously chosen), remarkably sprightly. His eyes dart around the room, fixating on each audience member as he plays. Not only is he friendly and forward—he asks whether we’re in it for the long haul or whether he should cut it short, before beginning the encore—he’s also one of the few musicians who can use the term ‘power ballad’ in an utterly un-ironic fashion. “This next song is a power ballad in two parts,” explains Gruff as he introduces “Pwdin Wy”, which roughly translates to “Egg Pudding”. Later, before “Skylon”, Candylion’s 15-minute closer and tonight’s epic encore, he explains that: “This concerns a flight we took in 1976. We wrote a letter of complaint, and received no reply. So we wrote a power ballad instead.” What follows is a modern-day update of the story-styled songs fellow Welshman John Cale narrated for the Velvet Underground, specifically “The Gift”.
Far too long and indulgent to be a Super Furry Animals tune, “Skylon” is the work of a musician utilizing the solo canon as a means for full artistic experimentation. And it’s this experimentation that illuminates tonight’s best tunes—“Pwdin Ŵy Part’s 1 and 2”, and “Gwn Mi Wn”, which, when translated, means, “Yes, I Know”. The latter is the musical equivalent of the Michael Keaton movie, Multiplicity, Rhys sampling his vocals, percussion, and screams while beat boxing to create a cloned, surround-sound effect that echoes throughout the audience. It’s an ambitious undertaking, each part methodically built upon the others, and it’s as interesting to watch as it is to hear.
“Pwdin Ŵy”, a song in two parts, starts off with Rhys recreating a tropical rain forest with a sampling of birdcalls and the aforementioned 7-11 Big Gulp that captures thunderstorms. Once the scene is set, he introduces Part 2 as one of the saddest songs ever written. It is. With just a guitar, harmonica, and the Amazonian background, Rhys asks that we greet the song like a “Frank Sinatra live recording situation” with a “clap of recognition on the first bars.” We do.
The show finishes as it started, with several people onstage: Gruff calls up former Grandaddy member, and current tour support, Jim Fairchild, to help out with a cover of Kevin Ayers’ 1970 single, “Singing a Song in the Morning”. It’s a move that further exemplifies the fact that, for a solo performer, Gruff Rhys goes pretty damn big.