[15 May 2002]
The last two times Super Furry Animals played Philadelphia, the band was confined to tiny 21+ venues, despite cult status and chart success overseas. This time around, though, the Welshmen arrived with the blanket buzz of Rings Around the World, the epic new album that Britain’s prestigious MOJO Magazine voted the best of 2001. Critics in the States love it too, and that, combined with glowing word-of-mouth among listeners, has finally elevated the band to considerable stardom stateside as well.
And so here they were, headlining South Street’s prestigious Theatre of Living Arts. There was a single opener, the Baltimore rapper known as Cex, but people mostly tried to ignore him in waiting for the Furries. Since SFA first hit the scene in the mid-‘90s with Fuzzy Logic, they’ve been perceived as Wales’ answer to the Beatles, a quirky clan of musical madmen bent on recombining genres with creative lust.
On stage, they’re just as dizzyingly eccentric, infusing familiar folk/pop/rock paradigms with shards of metal, garage, and techno. Leader Gruff Rhys dishes out a distinct brand of absurd lyrics, toying with language (both English and his native Welsh, sometimes within the same song) and joking about everything from Einstein to ice hockey. To coincide with the release of Rings, the band released a matching DVD containing an animated film, each by a different outside artist, for every song on the album. During the set, these films played on two large screens in the background, offering psychedelic visual thrills to match the bizarre genius of the record.
The band opened with “(A) Touch Sensitive”, one of the moody instrumental set pieces on Rings Around the World. Minimal and mellow, it was simply there to tickle ears a bit. Now that all the attention was on them, the Furries kicked off the set more properly with “(Drawing) Rings Around the World”, a song they had performed two days earlier on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. As on record, it was spacey and slow to build, but its churning heft eventually became infectious before falling into a flurry of cell phone rings and responses.
They then launched into a defining gem of their early career, Fuzzy Logic‘s barely two-minute “God! Show Me Magic”. Set against the multifaceted sonic experimentation and social commentary of recent Super Furries fare, the quasi-Britpop anthem seemed merely serviceable, yet still catchy and nostalgic for longtime fans.
Next was a brand new song about a Golden Retriever, backed by ridiculous film footage of that fine breed of dog running through a country field, all of which recalled TV’s Lassie. Then came “The International Language of Screaming”, a bouncing freak-out from Radiator, the band’s sophomore album. Again, older fans dug it while newcomers probably found it somewhat rudimentary.
“Sidewalk Serfer Girl”, an off-kilter entry from Rings, may have confounded the crowd with its brash stabbing of garage riffs into a tiptoed folk-pop ditty. A shining highlight on record, it proved difficult to dance to in concert. But it was fun to behold the animated short film with a peasant lass (serf-er girl, get it?) spinning down through the clouds alongside the chorus, “I’d do anything to catch you falling.”
Then “It’s Not the End of the World?” provided a sublime few minutes of tongue-in-cheek pop optimism, marked by prerecorded strings and Rhys’s brief flirtation with falsetto. The film showed countless mushroom clouds blooming, a piece of visual/musical irony seemingly lifted from Stanley Kubrick’s famous ending to Dr. Strangelove. It was followed by a quieter folk ballad from Mwng, the band’s Welsh language album, the songs of which showcased a more traditional songwriting style.
Still downbeat, Rhys picked up a harmonica for “Run! Christian, Run!”, Rings ‘s sleepy song about religious indoctrination. It’s a lovely bit of harmonious twang, although the crowd was more enthralled with the film depicting key quotes amidst cartoonish images of hell fire. There was an expectedly smart line credited to W.C. Fields, some statistics on the Church’s treatment of witchcraft, and finally, a quiz about which sins were punishable by mortal death. Of the eight or so listed (including “making fun of a bald person”), each was eventually checked off, with the relevant Bible chapter underneath. It was a gutsy move on the band’s part, which they countered onscreen with this disclaimer—“To learn more, go to your local library. We’re not here to tell you what to think. Not like them.”
There was much more hilarious levity to the commentary quotient of the Monica Lewinsky-inspired “Presidential Suite”. Its film had missiles and cigars as phallic sight gags (with lyrical mention of “another Cuban cigar crisis”), as well as Monty Python-style paper animation. It is to the Super Furries’ credit that they can create such gorgeous music around such absurd subject matter, with Rhys asking in song, “Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth?”
The bluesy “No! Sympathy” was next, couching a tirade against death penalty (“You deserve to die”) within a yawning stretch of head-rolling lethargy. At one point, the players left the stage while a female kung fu fighter flew to action in the film. Next was the sultrily silly “Juxtapozed With U”, for which Rhys sang into a vocoder and played keyboards from behind some tropical plants. It fit the beachy vibe perfectly, as Rhys played with language as usual—“Just suppose I’m juxtaposed with you.”
All this was well and good, but everyone was really waiting for the indisputable standout of Rings, the frighteningly chameleonic “Receptacle for the Respectable”. It finally arrived, as on record, in distinct segueing segments—rollicking rock, lounge pop, and then faux metal. On record, though, Paul McCartney contributes the chomping of celery and carrots, a spoof of his historic help on the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables”. So, how does the band recreate that in concert? They get a roadie, of course, to come out in a cardboard Paul mask and throw vegetables at the audience. It was a genius touch and people ate it up literally.
The jetting garage steam of “Do or Die”, from SFA’s landmark Guerilla album, was then a nice touch, but the set was clearly winding down. Rhys soon announced the weariness of the band, only understandable, and ran through just a few more songs. The best was “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”, an infamous import single filled with expletives. An exuberant middle finger to The Man, it starts slow but then erupts into the disco-raging chorus, “You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else,” getting diehard fans dancing every time.
Although the diatribe sounded strange now that the band is signed to a branch of Sony in the U.K., the Furries have proved time and time again that they do whatever they please, artistically or otherwise. After all, Rings Around the World is a big-budget, over-the-top, indulgent, swollen behemoth of an album, juggling genres with more nutty aplomb than can be believed. On stage, the players showed that same impressive mastery of musical forms, recreating the vast majority of Rings with a meticulous, even neurotic, ear for every sound.
Still, it would have been nice to hear more songs from their prior four albums, rather than merely one from each and the rest from Rings. Guerilla especially should have been better represented. But these are just minor complaints, common when a venerable band has to whittle a set list out of so much strong material. When the players finally exited the stage, people only wanted to hear more, stomping feet and chanting “SFA.” And while that may be common enough at shows, you could tell that everyone knew they weren’t going to see something like this again for a long time.