John Lavin reviews Gruff Rhys’ ambitious performance with the Orchestra of Wales as part of Cardiff’s Festival of Voice.
Not many artists would introduce a world premiere event with the seventy-two piece BBC Orchestra of Wales, with the charm and lack of hubris with which Gruff Rhys approaches this delightful performance. Opening with a spine-tingling solo rendition of ‘Cryndod Yn Dy Lais’, (originally the b-side to 1997 Super Furry Animals’ single ‘Play it Cool’, and arguably the first SFA track to hint at his solo career), Rhys self-depreciatingly describes the opening ‘Golden Oldies’ section of the performance as ‘something to get out of the way’, adding that ‘a seventy-two piece orchestra is a hard act to follow’. The back-to-frontness of beginning a gig with an encore clearly appeals to Rhys’s well-developed aptitude for subversion but it also works extremely well in building anticipation for the spectacle ahead. Each song sees him joined by new band members – including the extraordinarily talented former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock – and the set takes us on a whistle-stop chronological trip through Rhys’s solo back catalogue, culminating in a thunderous version of ‘American Interior’.
After a short break, the Orchestra of Wales, led by conductor and arranger Stephen McNeff, arrive onstage and launch into an overture comprised of the musical motifs from new LP Babelsberg, while the band take up their places. After a brief hush, a beaming Rhys launches into lead single ‘Frontier Man’, the orchestra adding a warm, widescreen quality to the music that never threatens to overwhelm it. On the contrary, band and orchestra remain impressively in-sync at all times.
As with much of Babelsberg‘Frontier Man’ feels like a 21stCentury Welsh update of Jimmy Webb’s work with Glen Campbell. Rhys’s trick in this song is to replace Webb’s telephone linesman with a deeply millennial, psychological mess of a character, someone who readily admits that: ‘on the frontier of delusion, I’m your foremost frontier man’. Immediately, as on many tracks on this LP, we find ourselves in a potentially more autobiographical terrain than this singer usually ventures into, a new development that culminates in ‘Same Old Song’, which finds Rhys recounting an occasion on which he was: ‘Coughing up blood on an American tour / Left me bewildered / Concerned for my future’.
Mid-album track, ‘Drones in the City’, proves to be a highlight of the evening, with Rhys singing alone alongside the swelling orchestration, his voice plangent and utterly moving. The lyrics recall fellow Welshman Robert Minhinnick’s pre/post-apocalyptic poetry, and are full of foreboding: ‘On a sunny day they’ll see me clearly / Drones in the city / Buzzing sweetly in my ears around me / …And once they take me out / There’ll be no element of doubt…’
Summer hit-in-waiting, ‘Negative Vibes’, probably receives the most rapturous audience reaction of the evening, with its heart-skipping 60s melody matched by a beguilingly gentle vocal performance. ‘You and I can conquer all the negative vibes / And get on with our lives / Together or apart,’ sings Rhys, sweetly. ‘Throw away your masked disguise / Shaped like Saturn / Or a Tomcat running in the rain.’ On one level it’s an update of SFA hit ‘Juxtaposed with U’ (sample lyric: ‘I’m not in love with you but I won’t hold that against you’) but viewed from another perspective, it is a much darker meditation on the relationship problems that are hinted at throughout Babelsberg, married in the best Lou Reed tradition to a tune that could have come straight out of Tin Pan Alley.
The evening reaches a climax with album highlight ‘Architecture of Amnesia’, which, with its dark musings on the post-Brexit / Trump landscape recalls the angry, tear-stained social commentary that informed ‘Download’ on SFA’s 1997 LP Radiator. As with ‘Drones…’ the orchestra provides an intense backdrop to Rhys’s assured, increasingly remarkable vocals, illustrating the dark foreboding in the lyrics, in marked contrast to the almost Douglas Sirk-ian lushness of much of the musical accompaniment tonight.
If there is a quibble, it’s that in the absence of Lily Cole to duet on album closer, ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, Rhys sings the track alone. Asides from the marvellously deadpan way in which Cole sings the line, ‘Mel Gibson howls with rage / The worst Hamlet of his age’, it is really the Hazelwood / Sinatra dynamic of this song that marks it out as an album highlight. One of the fantastic backing vocalists (Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf of 9Bach) would have more than ably stood in for Cole.
This is a minor quibble, however, on what was unquestionably a triumphant evening for all concerned. With both Babelsberg itself and this stunning, assured performance, Gruff Rhys has cemented his reputation as a solo artist of the very first rank.