Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gruff Rhys presents American Interior at The Echo (11/20/14)

"Walk Into The Wilderness"

I really wanted to get some of these thoughts down on paper (so to speak) so I'm just going to go for it. Even though the Gruff Rhys show at The Echo was weeks ago. I have been a big fan of Super Furry Animals ever since 2005, when they were one of the bands I allowed to pull me back to rock and roll. I picked up Rings Around The World and Phantom Power at that time and devoured them. I'd been listening to rock and roll for the first time in 20 years, with nearly, newly virgin ears, since August 2005, so when I saw they were coming to town in November that year, I decided it was time to take the plunge and go out to a show!

November 29, 2005, was the exact date, at the Avalon on Vine St. I had no idea what to expect, didn't know if I'd get laughed out of the room as 'that old guy in the corner' or what. I knew no one who was into rock music at the time so I had zero expectations. This was the tour where they came on stage wearing space suits (at left). Super Furry Animals took me on a trip that night that launched me off in an entirely new direction in my life.   Music, music videos, CD's, getting into the local indie scene, eventually blogging. I mean, you're reading this aren't you? See what I mean?

Passion for live music exploded like a bomb in me. Within 4 months I was seeing 7 concerts a month, within a year I was seeing 12 a month. Now nine years have gone by, and I have seen Super Furry
Animals three times and Gruff Rhys once before solo on his Candylion tour in 2007 (at right). When I heard about this show on November 20, I didn't know what he was up to until I checked out his new CD, American Interior, and read about this latest solo project, which originated a few years ago.

Apparently, Mr. Rhys took a trip a couple of years ago across a great swath of the American Middle West, touring and performing and in search of any trace of a distant relative from a couple of centuries ago who scoured the Native American territory for evidence of an ancient tribe of Welsh Indians...??? Too bizarre to relate here, suffice to say, I was doubtful. But curious. And I love his music so I wanted to see this show.

I got there really early and saw the entire set by East India Youth. All pre-programmed beats and pre-recorded backing, still the vocals of singer William Doyle are stylized and varied enough to merit attention, all bathed in trippy swirling lights which filled the venue. But it was LOUD LOUD and I was either glad I wasn't tripping, or wished I was.

Gruff Rhys delivered one of the oddest sets of songs and storytelling events I've ever seen. When I first read about his latest project I wasn't sure that he wasn't telling a true story. Welsh Native Americans? How was I to know?

As soon as he took the stage, all doubt was erased. It was all a big fabrication of the devious, mischievous mind of Mr. Rhys. He welcomed the audience with an introduction to the short mockumentary we were about to watch with a series of cue cards he held up. Earnest sarcasm dripped from his lips. It was equal parts Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Mad Magazine.

We then watched the 20 minute film which traced Gruff Rhys' long lost "fictional" relative, "John Evans", who fled Wales to try to find out the history of a lost tribe of Native Americans who spoke Welsh, owing to the fact that they were rumored to have emigrated to America from Wales in the 12th century. One quickly picked up the tone of satire with the outrageous tale told.

Following the film, Rhys took the stage alone with a guitar and it was just him and us as he sang acoustic versions of the songs from the album. The pleasure of hearing his wonderful voice, up close and without adornment, was a treat that kept the audience transfixed. The songs range in style through multiple American folk and country idioms to illustrate the varied tales he had to tell. On the album, the songs are fully orchestrated in the inimitable Rhys style, but here, stripped down to basic acoustic versions, his voice was really given a chance to dominate.

Between songs he presented short stories about the trials and tribulations of "Evans", the adventurous explorer, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Making his way through the plains states and the American south "John Evans" survived attempted murders, starvation, disease, animal attacks, hostile natives, until he was last heard from in New Spain under the name of "Don Juan Evans". He was never heard from again after the age of twenty-nine.

The whole presentation had a very free-form, almost improvisational, vibe as Gruff would sound like he was making it up on the spot. At various points he would bring out a doll to represent "John Evans" (at right) or invite audience members to join him onstage to pantomime characters he was describing (below).  Overwhelmed by the creativity, startled once again at how wonderful his unique voice is, and impressed by the easy, relaxed and conversational rapport he achieves with his audience, it felt like being invited into his home to watch slides and listen to songs.

I have to say, though, that conditions at The Echo were not optimal for a show that was often intimate and quiet. Whatever was going on downstairs at Echoplex was bleeding sound and beats up through the floor, becoming occasionally distracting. The gracious Mr. Rhys didn't acknowlege that, but when the hand blow-dryer in the ladies room went off, he glanced back over his shoulder and asked, "Is someone using a leaf-blower out back?"


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