wed 15/07/2020

Gruff Rhys, KOKO | reviews, news & interviews

Gruff Rhys, KOKO

Gruff Rhys, KOKO

The great Welsh romantic explores the American interior, with comedy inserts

Gruff Rhys performs 'American Interior' in the American interior

First there was the movie, the album, the book and the app. Now there is the tour. American Interior, Gruff Rhys’s postmodern narrative concept, has spread tentacles in any number of media. At the heart of it is the mythic story of John Evans, a young Welsh explorer who in the 1780s took himself off deep into the unvanquished heart of America in search of a myth, the lost Welsh-speaking tribe of Madog. A serpentine river odyssey that involved him in vast geopolitical forces, it has spawned a suite of songs about the solitude of adventure. Onstage, Rhys presents them in the form of a lecture with images, cue cards and one impassive Evans puppet with a phallus for a nose.

After a brief introductory film from a Seventies documentary laid the scene, Rhys entered not to sing a song but to deliver a few curtain-raising thoughts on the coracle fishing boat, coincidentally found in both Welsh and Native American culture. Only then came the searching strains of the title song, whereafter the crowd was introduced to 18th-century Welsh magus Iolo Morganwg. “If you’re unfamiliar with that name,” advised Rhys, “you won’t be in about 20 seconds.” And he thundered into “Iolo”, a bone-shaking tribute to the founder of the National Eisteddfod (still from the film American Interior pictured below).

As we followed Evans over the Atlantic and up the Mississippi-Missouri into the hinterland, so it went on. Rhys twiddled his fingers on the iPad in front of him to produce woozy visual effects – the bobbing of a boat, alligators in the river – and boosted the five-piece band with flourishes of sound from a set of 45s on a turntable. (A trumpet also joined in here and there.) The songs tracking Evans’s journey explored the contours of innocence and introversion - “Lost Tribes”, “100 Unread Messages”, “The Last Conquistador”, “Allweddellau Allweddol” – and seemed to suit the modest figure Rhys cuts onstage, barely moving but to strum his acoustic guitar and unleash that gorgeous Costelloesque voice.

Tonally it was all a bit of binary experience. The songs may speak of earnest endeavour, but Rhys cued them up with the laid-back irony of a bone-dry comedian. He got a lot of humour out of anachronisms – Evans came from a farmhouse “with mud on the floor and just a simple dial-up connection for the PC”. “Walk into the Wilderness” was introduced as a power ballad in the style of Bonnie Tyler – we are invited to chortle at the thought of her hair blowing in the wind – but when it came it was wistful and beautiful. Rhys is a romantic at heart.

The band, commuting across the pop map of America from soul to blues to country, now and then joined in the fun, acting out an attempted assassination, or supplying a police-siren soundtrack for Evans’s arrest. Obedient to the instructions on Rhys’s cue cards, the audience supplied prolonged applause and, at the end of a good long set of encores from previous solo work (highlights: “Gwn Mi Wn”, “Candylion”, “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru”, “Set Fire to the Stars”), went apeshit. Rightly so. Gruff Rhys is a wonderful one-off whose voyage of discovery continues. Where to next?

The songs may speak of earnest endeavour, but Rhys cued them up with the laid-back irony of a bone-dry comedian

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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