Reviews

Gruff Rhys

Kevin Pearson

For a supposed solo show, Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys brings along a ridiculously big band.

Gruff Rhys

Gruff Rhys

City: Philadelphia, PA
Venue: Johnny Brendas
Date: 2007-09-19

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image