It was rare to see so many people out on a Monday night in Exeter, I recall attending gigs in the past on Monday's where the only people present were a handful of people sheltering from the cold, the bar staff, the doormen and the lady sat in the ticket office, exchanging smiles for currency and looking clearly miffed that she had to get off her stool in order to hang a jacket up in the cloakroom. I guess it isn't every Monday that the city is graced with the presence of a man who has provided many years toil to become one of Wales' finest exports, yes folks, Gruff Rhys was in town and we were there to see what was ‘going down’.....
I used to be a fan of The Super Furry Animals which was the band that really put Gruff Rhys on the map, having kicked it all off around the time when the bragging rights were being decided between Oasis and Blur and the sale of Adidas Gazelle's were at an all time high, I was interested to see how the sound had developed from the psychedelic rock/electronic swirlings of the Super Furries to what was being lauded as a 5 star album in many leading broadsheets and high profile music monthlies.
The background to his latest (fourth) long player 'American Interior', told the story of John Evans, an explorer and distant relative of Rhys’ from the late 18th Century who made the trip to America in search of a tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans. In 2012, Rhys decided to retrace the steps of John Evans and as a result has created a concept album, a movie, an 'app' and a live stage performance to help tell the story.
Rhys took to the stage wearing his wolf head hat and explained what the show was all about and how he and the band would take the audience through each stage of John Evans’s journey, he even had the forethought of pointing out where the fire exits were in the main auditorium prior to leaving us to watch 'the safety video', which was in fact the 1970's documentary 'Madoc: The making of a Myth' centred around the belief that there was once, a tribe of Welsh speaking settlers in America.
The band took to the stage and launched into the opening track 'American Interior' which, with its tender lyrics and lush sounds really set the scene for the evening. From then on in, we were treated to tracks from the 'American Interior' album with Rhys' comedic comments of John Evans’s journey, slides were presented on the massive screen behind the stage that showed John Evans depicted as a puppet in various stages of his journey to America. Gruff had decided to make the trip as real to the original journey as possible but with the walk from Wales to London originally clocking in at 3 weeks, they decided to take the train!
Gruff told us that along the way, John Evans battled crocodiles, was struck down with malaria and at one stage announced that "Not even death will stop me from finding the lost tribe"....all delivered in his trademark hap hazard storytelling way. Towards the end of the set, Gruff tells of how John Evans finally dies whilst in New Orleans aged just 29, the cause of death? ‘illness, disease and maybe booze', here the American Interior story ended and he announced that the main show would now commence (90 mins after he kicked things off).
From here until the end of the night, the band entertained the near sell out crowd with hits from Gruff's past long players 'Hotel Shampoo' and 'Candylion', highlights for me included 'Candylion', 'Honey' and the set closer 'Tiger's Tale'. Gruff used the John Evans puppet and various plackards throughout the evening to help punctuate the story and during the last song, he introduced his band whilst holding aloft signs stating 'Applause' prior to flipping them around to display 'Louder', he finally held up a 'Thank You' sign which when flipped displayed 'The End'.
His band, which consisted of 4 members featuring Y Niwl and Kliph Scurlock from cult American band Flaming Lips played flawlessly, we were stood right next to Kliph and despite us not hearing the best mix of sounds, were not able to fault his playing for one second.
You never really know what you're going to get when you see Gruff Rhys perform live, having never seen him previously, I was a blank canvas, a pure, untainted virgin and I was ready to be de-flowered by him and his band of music making companions. If you get the chance to catch him on tour or at a festival during 2015, you can be assured of an entertaining, humour filled and musical night out and one that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Click HERE to see all of the images from the show
Review by Steve Muscutt
Photography by Julian Baird WWW.JULIANBAIRD.COM