Gruff Rhys - RNCM, Manchester
On tonight's showing, Gruff Rhys may be the most charming Welshman to have ever lived - second only maybe to his mysterious ancestor, John Evans. The American Interior tour, paired with a film, a book and an app, tells the story of 18th century explorer John Evans. Evans is said to have walked 2000 miles up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in search of a lost tribe of Welsh speakers headed by the fabled Prince Madoc.
Always a creative performer, Rhys brings Evans’ journey alive via Powerpoint presentation, pieced together with acoustic songs. ‘Year of The Dog’ and title track ‘American Interior’ introduce the narrative with slow and pleasant guitar; RNCM is a seated venue, which for a normal gig would be a bit rubbish, but for this show it’s perfect.
It soon becomes apparent that Gruff is not only an accomplished musician, but also a natural comedian; he amuses the audience with tourist-style photos of a John Evans doll in various locations along his journey. “He lived in a small mud hut, where I imagine his siblings firing up the dial up connection on an old PC to see if [he'd] sent any emails,” Gruff says, describing a slide that shows Evans’ place of birth. With no-one else in support, Rhys uses vinyl records - which he manually changes between songs - for extra sound. The new album obviously gets a good work out yet he sneaks in some older tracks such as ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ to portray Evans’ boat journeys and ‘Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru’ (Welsh for ‘driving driving driving’).
It’s very much a one-man show, with Gruff pausing frequently - often in the middle of songs - to change or adjust a setting. After playing for so long as part of a group, it seems that he seems comfortable with the solitude of performing alone. About half way through, a low battery sign appears on the projector screen, announcing that Rhys only has 10% battery remaining. This is clearly unexpected and there is a chance that the slideshow might not even finish before the battery dies. Shortly after, it turns out that the batteries on his handheld synthesiser have gone too. After a small struggle and a polite request for help, he has to skip playing new single ‘Lost Tribes’.
Despite technical difficulties, it’s a captivating performance, even for those who already know the story. Rhys' almost nervous sounding chatter and gentle, intricate guitar tunes are enough to keep the entire room silent all evening. As the night comes to a close, Gruff heads off stage, but quickly returns for an encore with his ‘cousin Bob’ in tow. Bob assists on the trumpet for the first two songs, ‘Take a Sentence’ and ‘Sensations In The Dark’. Ignoring requests for Super Furry Animals material, Rhys treats the audience to some older solo numbers. He finishes with ‘Honey All Over’ and leaves the stage to the sound of his own harmonised vocals still singing on loop.
A magnificent display from a pair of intrepid explorers.