First, the encore. Gruff Rhys has never been a man bound by the book, and in typically about-face fashion he delivered his first solo gig at the Barbican in reverse order. With the main act a complete performance of most recent album Babelsberg with the London Contemporary Orchestra, he sprung a considerable bonus on fans in the form of a 45-minute solo ‘best of’.
The Welshman began alone, reminding us in the process of his virtuosity on acoustic guitar. To a respectful silence he effortlessly turned the tremolos of Iolo, one of the standout tracks from first English language solo album Candylion, setting the tone for the evening. Cleverly employing a metronome for Lonesome Words, the forces were successively bolstered by vocalists Lisa Jên and Mirain Hâf, Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, keyboard player Osian Gwynedd and bassist Sweet Baboo.
Gwynedd in particular applied a wonderful sense of space to Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be), the song assuming an expansive demeanour not obviously found on record. Sensations In the Dark was fun as ever, so too the impish Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru with which Rhys concluded the first half. He looked in fine fettle, cutting an even more relaxed figure than usual in his slow introductions and lilting asides to the Barbican hall.
What that audience was most keen to experience, however, was a complete run through of Babelsberg – whose lack of a Mercury Prize nomination remains a puzzlement. This is big band Gruff, who sat with his band on one side and the London Contemporary Orchestra on the other, their sinewy strings winding through Stephen McNeff’s sensitively handled arrangements. McNeff was an animated presence on the conductor’s rostrum, while the players give their all in passionate support.
There were some heart-rending moments – particularly when the band left the stage for Drones In The City, Rhys symbolically alone under the spotlight and emoting in spite of rather than with the orchestra. Frontier Man showed impressive gravitas despite the depth of the singer’s register, while the softly sung Negative Vibes was one of many beautifully shaded moments. Limited Edition Heart, meanwhile, scored highly in its winsome and breezy approach.
Finally the stage was set for Lily Cole to join as co-vocalist for Selfies In The Sunset, a natural progression for her aspirations as a singer in the wake of shared campaigning with Rhys against Brexit. Another beautifully wrought and heart melting song, it had the dark undertones of apocalyptic beauty that characterise this record – ultimately uplifting but at a cost.
Deserving of a second set of encores, Rhys opted instead to leave us with his most recent work ringing in our ears. This was an effective ploy since Babelsberg stands right at the top of his achievements as a solo artist but, with his national treasure status assured over nearly 25 years as a front man, it is a record we should know and appreciate to a much greater extent. This night was the fullest possible advocate for its cause.