THE LAST time I saw Gruff Rhys live, seven or eight years ago, during the encore he strapped himself into an airline pilot’s seat to perform ‘Skylon!’ – a 15-minute meditation on plane journeys with “mediocre movies and frivolous magazines”.
Then there was his 2011 album ‘Hotel Shampoo’ – the title referencing Rhys’ habit of hoarding miniature shampoo bottles and other hotel room products when touring.
So it would have been foolish to expect anything too conventional when the masterful Welsh storyteller ambled on stage at Mareel on Thursday night.
It may have been a one-man show, but it was anything but one-dimensional. In addition to a guitar he drew upon an abundance of gadgets, including electronic samplers, a metronome and a turntable offering up dubstep percussion.
Also central to proceedings was an iPad, used to control a primitive PowerPoint projection Rhys had put together to illustrate the story of Welsh explorer John Evans.
The Super Furry Animals frontman believes Evans may have been an ancestor, and he became both inspiration and subject for the concept LP ‘American Interior’ – released earlier this year in album, book, film and bilingual app formats.
Rhys traced the explorer’s eighteenth century steps from Cardiff, via London, to North America in an ultimately futile effort to locate a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Americans.
A charming, amusing documentary shot during his 2012 nine-date “investigative tour” in search of more snippets about Evans’ life was shown prior to last night’s gig. It was followed by a Q&A with doyen of all things Screenplay Kathy Hubbard, who was instrumental in persuading Rhys to come to Shetland.
Beautifully shot in monochrome, with cleverly deployed dots of colour every so often, the Dylan Goch-directed film is undoubtedly a triumph. It’s also sure to leave many viewers pining for North America’s wide expanses.
It tells how Rhys, in his inimitably daft-yet-sincere style, took a Muppets-esque figurine of what he imagined Evans would have looked like across the US from Baltimore to Memphis.
Between leaving behind life as a 22 year old farm labourer in Wales to search for the mythical tribe and his death in New Orleans, aged only 29, it seems Evans managed to pack in quite a life. He became a cartographer of some renown, contracted malaria, got arrested and imprisoned, encountered alligators and snakes, endured poverty and survived attempted murder.
Rhys managed to breathlessly condense much of that into one of the resulting album’s standouts, ‘100 Unread Messages’. A breezy slice of foot-tapping rockabilly on record, stripped back to acoustic guitar and (literally) metronomic percussion it worked brilliantly too – bringing its composer’s witty lyrics and innate sense of melody to the fore.
Early on the slightly unnerving-looking felt puppet of Evans was brought on stage, from where he looked on as Rhys realised his iPad battery was running low – adding tension to the evening, he joked, wondering “how fast can I do this show?”
Evans crossed the Atlantic chasing a mythical tribe, and you suspect the odd myth or three might have sneaked into Rhys’ whimsical re-telling of the story too – though that simply added to the charm.
He delivered a playful 80-minute set laced with deadpan humour and brimming with creative spark and originality, with highlights including the mesmeric title track to ‘American Interior’.
The ever-engaging singer dipped into his native Welsh tongue for ‘Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru’ (it means ‘Driving Driving Driving’), then raided his back catalogue for the majestic ‘If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)’.
During the encore his iPad finally gave up as Rhys launched into ‘The Last Conquistador’. “A combination of disease and confusion; my whole life’s work was just an illusion”, he sang.
The lyrics wistfully dwell on how Evans never achieved what he set out to. But, as Rhys explained following the film, that didn’t really matter because he did achieve so many other things – just like the young Gruff, who dreamt of being an astronaut, ended up becoming a pop singer.
A badly executed concept album would be enough to alienate the most devout of fans. But with ‘American Interior’ Rhys has delivered a fascinating, adventurous and consummate piece of work.
Quite what anyone who went along last night hoping to hear a few old Super Furries tunes will have made of it is unclear.
But to these ears and eyes, the slightly ramshackle show cemented Rhys’ place as one of the UK’s most treasured, idiosyncratically gifted songwriters, and we’re very lucky indeed to have enjoyed a magical evening in his company.
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