Monday, 6 October 2014

Music and myth: A night with Gruff

I saw Gruff Rhys the other week. I really should have written it up sooner – but it’s been fairly hectic and frantic and non stop stop stop recently. 

If  there’s one furry animal who keeps up the appearances then it’s Gruff – whilst the band remain in some limbo state of stasis – well their name anyway – as all the other members are busy doing this and that (more to come about later on) in a furry or not so furry vein.  Gruff seems to churn out Mercury nominated collaborative albums by the bucketload – and there seems to be no dip in quality whatever he turns his exquisite eye and hand to.

I had originally planned to go with a long time friend who’s recently set up shop in the southbank concrete jungle – all education plans and talk – but he couldn’t make it – he had however managed to get me the tickets though – that unexpected joy of being on a guest list made me feel twenty years old again. Except I’m 43 now – grey and much fatter – but with the easy grin of child when it’s all coming for free.

 Not that it would have made it any better.

You see Gruff is wonderful company in the intimacy of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  All set up ready for a recital that looks part concert, part lesson what with the power point in tow (ok it wasn’t a power point – it was a slide show – all labelled and organised - but you get my drift).

There’s a wonderful laconic relaxed nature to Gruff – it comes from that assured knowledge that what he’s doing is genuine I think – this is not postmodern trickery of the masses – it is a wonderful piece of exploratory pop wedded to an ancient ‘man-made’ (possibly) myth of a Welsh tribe conquering the America Interior and the efforts of one man to find out the truth some way back in the 1800s. It’s the outward monologue of an offbeat mindset that is Gruff Rhys.

So our gig begins with a film. Beautiful shot in high contrast, all long pans and shaky cuts as a professor in safari wear gives us the background on the Welsh’s role in the making the land of the free. Narrated by Gwyn A. Williams the short film covers the origins of the notion that Welsh tribes first settled in North America in the 12th century. It propels you back to your own childhood of BBC documentaries and early morning Open Universities output. It is flawless in its attention to detail – long shots of a walking man on Welsh hills and American landscapes. It is also funny.

Gruff is that genial host – effortlessly cool and funny in equally measure – he’s performing in wolf headdress with cue cards – record player and acoustic guitar – he’s explaining the journey and creating our journey and what a journey it turns out to be. Songs interspaced with image and explanation of the horrors that John Evans or Jean Evans or even Don Juan Evans went through in his quest to find out where the Welsh went.  From the opening  C&W tinged Tiger’s Tale, that soon segues into the ensuing Year Of The Dog, the audience are held pretty much spellbound for the best part of two hours. It’s good company to be in.

Oh did I forget to say – Gruff recreated the voyage – with a puppet. A grey muppet of austere stature and utter melancholia – it’s black and white felt (as imagined by Pete Fowler) serving to reinforce the tragicomic elements of this ‘story’. Gruff brings him on to cheers from the sold out venue – like an even more surreal moment from The Muppets.  And then proceeds to show us where he’d been and which tube line he’d travelled on – via the wonder of technology and beautifully framed pictures beamed from his ipad to the vast screen on stage. It’s fair to say Gruff looks lonely out there – but it’s clear the audience are willing him on.

Gruff has this wonderful flick of his wrist – and images zoom in and break up in pixels and fuzz – or jump back as if alive – it brings the whole story to life. And once again it’s funny. Combined with sounds – such as when John Evans is arrested in Baltimore (“the home of crack cocaine and The Wire”) or is it St.Louis -  and it becomes something else – like a scene from a B film – all zooms and chops as sirens ring out and the intensity of the zoom whilst manic is timed for comic perfection. Gruff's deadpan delivery only adding to the inherent humor in the hall. 

At times I actually shake with laughter – at school I used to spend a lot of time laughing with the friend I’d eventually gone along with the gig with – a one Richard Chester – who’s about to release a wonderful set of tunes with another furyy – Bunf – but that’s for a later post – and this is not about The Pale Blue Dots – yet.  We used to cut pictures out of the paper and bring them in to make each other laugh at inopportune moments in PHSE or History – laughter in the corridors of comprehensives – it was a steel town we didn’t have much else – but our odd pictures of Dave Hill, or Ian Botham’s engagement, Les Dawson’s eye or James Brown’s orange leather jerkin would get us through the day (and night for that matter)

And there was a moment in Gruff’s procedings where he expertly linked the Acid Trip scene from Easy Rider to the same cemetery where John Evans had been buried. His choice of photograph and that causal throwaway comment just had me howling. The juxtaposition of Hopper and Fonda in that cemetery and our journey with John was comedy timing at is finest. Seriously he should have his own sit com – it was spectacle and stand up. Beautiful combined and timed.

But we nearly never got there – as apple’s ipad warnings ominously flashed up on screen – with Gruff at first unaware of the 10% remaining life of his ipad.  Thus we – the audience were not going to follow this tale the way it had been originally intended – indeed. “To add to the suspense [of the story], we don’t even know if we’ll make it to the end” Gruff tells us - it's a tense moment but we're here for the ride. With time definately not on his side - and an aborted attempt at charging that actually reduced the power - it was only the 'back up solutions' of an audience member that saved the images that are so intrinsic to this musical monologue.

In some ways the show falling apart only made it more special – more riveting – with the ipad dying in front of our eyes and calls for the technician to find the right charger – we didn’t know whether Gruff would have to fly solo even further – unaided – without photographic evidence. So the tale was told quickly and effectively – leaving time for the songs to be played in a batch – reflecting the photos we had briefly glimpsed. Saying that Gruff – told the story with the aid of a dubplate with beats – a 7 inch of slow jam – a beat (poet) explanation with added bass.

It would be good to have this narration with the album – but all you get are the songs. And what wonderful songs they are – conjuring up the west – the (lost) tribes he meets and the travels of our character, the last conquistador, in full technicolour. Gruff performs them simply here – guitar upturned in hand – and ipad applications double tracking voices – or replaying moments – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Gruff – multiple things happen at once – out of seeming chaos and random sounds -come tunes of utter wit and beauty. These are not Furry tunes done by one man – this is his art maaaaaaaaan. This is his thing.

And I guess when the narration takes a back seat and the set takes on a more usual format - the songs aren't in anyway diminished by the lack of explanation. Instead - Gruff simply sings and we clap.

Because that's the response you have. And he tells us to with his 'Applause' cue card.

But it's The Swamp that brings me to my knees - as we lay John Evans to rest - Gruff sweetly sings the line, 'I'm not scared of dying, I'm just scared of making you cry' - it's poignant but not mawkish - it's soul singing of the highest order. So two hours later we're still there - wanting another and another - and Gruff doesn't disappoint - with some nods and winks to his own back catalogue - not the Furries - just his own.  Candylion and Honey all over - end the show. 

As harmonies build and soar - Gruff runs from the stage - one final command card in his hand - we applaud.

And he thanks us.

For a brilliant and technically accurate review of the concert you should read this:

There's also an app and DVD and soundtrack and lots and lots of things - you can find a link to those via Gruff's site

And here's a wonderful song from Gruff