Last Friday, on a beautiful summer’s evening I arrived in Llangollen ahead of Gruff Rhys’ sold out show at the Llangollen Fringe Festival. I had been lucky getting tickets as two friends of mine were unable to attend the show and had sold them to me last minute. I made my way to the venue, got a drink from the bar and found a good viewing spot for the performance. It’d been years since I had been to the Llangollen town hall and it hadn’t changed a bit, although it was quite hot inside the venue it was a nice setting for the intimate show.
The stage consisted of a acoustic guitar, a projector screen and set out on a table was a laptop, a record player, a metronome and some effects units. Having not known prior to the gig if Gruff was going to be accompanied by a full band or not, I was quite excited to see that this was going to be something a bit different.
At around 8:40pm the compere came out onto the stage and introduced Gruff Rhys. The Welshman walked on stage wearing a black suit and the ‘wolf head’ hat he has been sporting throughout the promotion of American Interior. Gruff made a short introduction before a documentary titled ‘Price Madog and the Welsh Indians’ began to project onto the screen beside him, he then left the stage. The documentary set out the foundations of a story on which Gruff was about to build upon; that according to folklore Prince Madog discovered America in 1170, over 300 years before Christopher Colombus and that descendants of the Welsh voyagers (The Mandan Tribe) still live in America somewhere.
Gruff Rhys returned to the stage and kicked off proceedings with his song ‘Year Of The Dog’, followed by the Candylion track ‘The Court Of King Arthur’. Between each song Gruff would slowly paint the picture of how his distant ancestor, an 18th century explorer named John Evans mapped the Missouri river trying to find the elusive Welsh Indians. The Super Furry Animals singer was in fine form; flitting from Welsh to English throughout, his dry humour and wonderful meandering description of this strange and unusual journey had the audience captivated.
The story of John Evans is an engaging tale, from humble beginnings as a farm labourer to a chance meeting with a stranger who tells him of the fabled Welsh-speaking Native American tribe; facing a number of perils along the way including malaria, jail and war. (I won’t go in to too much detail just in case you are thinking of checking it out for yourself.)
Gruff Rhys accompanied the story with a (quite hilarious) powerpoint presentation and was also joined on stage by a felt avatar of what John Evans might have looked like (dreamt up by artist Pete Fowler).
Although the tale of John Evans was the main focus of the show, it in no way over shadowed the music. Gruff confidently breezed through the acoustic set mostly made up of songs from his latest album American Interior, along with a few tracks from his other solo albums thrown in for good measure. My personal favourites of the night were ‘Walk into the Wilderness’, Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be), ‘Lost Tribes’ and Hotel Shampoo’s opening track ‘Shark Ridden Waters’. The songs, the fable and the presentation all ran perfectly in sync with one another, then before I knew it Gruff was introducing his last song, the fantastic ‘100 Unread Messages’. He left the stage to a rapturous applause, then after a few minutes he returned to play a short two song encore which included the sublime ‘Honey All Over’ before calling it a night.
Gruff Rhys’ depiction of John Evans’ adventure across America has spawned a tour, an album, a film, a book and an app. So, with all his bases covered, you have no excuse not to check out at least one of them.
Listen to Gruff Rhys’ new album American Interior below.