In the prosperous environs of Chelsea, Cadogan Hall, the home ground of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is tonight on loan to the shabby Welsh charms of Gruff Rhys. Finding time around his other jobs as frontman to the Super Furry Animals and Neon Neon, he’s now three albums into a moonlighting solo career. Recent release Hotel Shampoo has taken him to a laidback place, his relatively simplistic arrangement of horns, strings and piano making for an altogether more loungey feel than his usual boundary-pushing work.
The difficulty with this reclined state of music is transferring it to the stage. With no super furry surprises and a set-list of around 20 tracks, all three albums are plundered extensively. With the first few tracks coming from Hotel Shampoo, it’s not until the frantic drumming on Lonesome Words, taken from second album Candylion, that an edge of excitement is added to what is so far a fairly pedestrian gig.
But from there on we enter sublime territory. His two part ode to the metaphorical egg pudding, Pwdin Ŵy, taken from 2005’s Welsh language album Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, is a joy. Introducing Part 1 as the euphoria of a new relationship, he says “we’ll get to part 2 later on”. In fact it follows straight away as the relationship shifts downwards towards its tragic end. Also glorious are two of his new ballads, Space Dust #2 and If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme), both waltzing like favourite songs you’ve only just discovered.
Fans of Candylion are kept happy with its sweet confection of a title track, a maniacal ending to Cycle Of Violence and Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru. Plus a full rendition (that’s 15 minutes worth) of Skylon! that ends the evening.
His ensemble is fleshed out by constant touring companion Lisa Jen Brown, perfect as the female foil to Rhys’s voice and by Wales’s answer to The Shadows, Y Niwl, who double up as both support and Rhys’s backing band.
Encouraging audience participation, a series of props are used throughout the evening, perhaps to entertain us, but equally to entertain himself. The list extends (not exhaustively) to 7″ records providing retro samples of birdsong, electro-crackling magic wands, a toy tannoy, plus his usual placards directing applause and hollering. Then there’s his tour-long promise, in keeping with the hotel/holiday concept, to sign inflatables over two metres in length (negotiable). Tonight punters have turned up with a pair of palm trees and a miniature shark. Giggles are high on the agenda and so it doesn’t harm him that Rhys is a natural comedian – a muttering, dry eccentric with little outward darkness.
Rhys could probably do what he likes with his entertaining demeanour and his songbook and it’d turn out well. But there’s no denying that tonight’s venue, staging and his musical collective are a perfect frame to an amiable central performance from one of this generation’s finest songwriting talents.