You hear about these exclusive gigs don’t you? Sometimes you see them on the BBC, an audience full of Graduate Recruitment Scheme Alumni who have a mate of a mate that knows someone who works on the Jools Holland show. They have three-quarter full pints and runny noses. Their partners look like they will sleep with anyone else just to make it all stop. They are going bald. Some are wearing scarves indoors. All have cried secretly in a workplace toilet cubicle.
So you sit watching with a sneer on your face and a feeble sense of superiority in your heart and say things like: ‘Graduate Recruitment Scheme Alumni’ and ‘Jools Holland’ and ‘bald’ and ‘scarves’ and then next thing you know you are invited to one. But the one you are invited to will be nothing like that because you are fucking hip. You refuse to get excited by anything anymore. You aren’t some saddo fanboy who has previously made a mental note of every time you have seen Gruff Rhys in public. No way.
The first time I saw Gruff Rhys in public was when Hypervalue was still on Cowbridge Road East, Cardiff. He was wearing a red bubble coat and a bobble hat. I hadn’t long since moved to Wales and, for me, this was very exciting. I understand that many of you bleed Clark’s Pies and can’t as much as knit a nice jumper without finding it attached to a Furry Animal of some kind but I was a foreigner in your land and, for me, Gruff Rhys was some magical creature that travelled exclusively by astral projection. I’d never expected to see him. And I’d never expected to see him outside a discount household goods store. It was a thrill and to this day seeing him is still a thrill.
I suppose what I am trying to say is, this was an exclusive gig to see Gruff Rhys at Gwdihw, I had a ticket and I was really, really pleased.
However I was a little intimidated by just how genuinely hip this gig might be. I set my watch to hip time and turned up an hour after doors opened. That was less hip than I imagined it would be. The place was packed, mostly, with people who were just genuinely much nicer human beings than me, and H. Hawkline was about to finish. It sounded fantastic. Everyone said it was great. I believe them. Next time I’m not going to be so damn hip.
Managing to secure a decent spot down by the front while other people bought beer, chatted to friends, had a good time and stuff like that, I checked out the dessert trolley of instruments that had been left out as tantalizing treats for the expectant crowd: a children’s keyboard, a shaker thing that looked like a tangerine, a record player, a metronome, a box with a weird light on a wire like some crap android Angler Fish; those mad drum sticks he’s used at a few things lately. I looked back across the various people sat, perched, leant and jammed. Someone I knew made sex faces at me as he sat next to the woman he loved. If it weren’t for the small army of photographers stalking the place and generally getting in the way, I might have felt sexy too, but I suppose that just proves once and for all that I’m just not cut out for a career in the porn industry.
Then he appeared. The front door opened and Gruff Rhys himself squeezed into the room with his big, cardboard ‘Applause!’ sign. We did! He was wearing a black bubble coat and a bobble hat. He ordered a coffee and began to play some music to us.
You know what Gruff’s music sounds like, and he played it. Lots of it. On his own. For 90 minutes. He managed this with both acoustic simplicity and idiosyncratic re-imaginings: ‘Candylion’ was sung over the looped intro of the 7” single version. And by looping, I just mean stopping the record, picking up the needle and starting again. The sections between picking up and playing were referred to as ‘gaps’. Less a loop and more a perforated circle, like the bit around your tax disc when it arrives in the post. He also did a beautiful song about genocide.
On ‘Cycle Of Violence’, there were actual, proper loops – all kinds of unseen pedals curdling Rhys’ chanting, drones and screams into infinite curlicues of sound. Some songs were played over acetate backing tracks on the record player, while others were just given a homespun finish; homespun, that is, if you happened to grow up in the shop that Brian Cant ran in Bric-A-Brac.
However, it was those songs delivered in a more stripped-back folk form that worked best. A lot of adjectives swirl around Rhys’ work but buried beneath the restlessness and renegade silliness, Rhys has an incredibly honest and quite rich voice, showcased perfectly during these quieter moments.
Still, the surreal was never far away, from vinyl pressings of Norwegian bird-song to interludes of epic synth solos on 45 as he reset his keyboard, Rhys is a fascinating mixture of earnest composer and Situationist jester. This can sometimes come across as confused and disjointed, a prime example being the somewhat overlong and often bizarre encore, but at its best this concoction serves up a wonky but brilliant show that wouldn’t seem out of place at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe as well as a tent at Green Man.
What was my word limit again?