Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Fri 19 Dec
2014 was something of an annus mirabilis for Gruff Rhys. American Interior, telling the story of distant ancestor’s journey across America, mutated from album to film to book to mobile app, and each appeared on numerous ‘best of 2014’ style lists.
Concept albums are not far behind rock operas in the ‘ideas best left in 1973’ stakes, and the thought of a theatre performance based on a concept album causes the mind to bring forth images of Rick Wakeman resplendent in a tasselled cape surrounded by banks of keyboards powered only by his own sense of achievement while a host of ice-skaters recreate the negotiations leading to the Peace Of Westphalia, provoking a host of involuntary shudders. And yet Gruff Rhys has created not only a concept album that withstands repeated listening, but also an accompanying stage show that is sheer joy from start to finish.
Rather than a straightforward musical concert, tonight’s performance takes the form of a humorous slideshow and lecture interspersed with songs as Rhys traces the (mostly true) story of 18th century Welsh explorer John Evans and his quixotic journey across the nascent United States Of America in search of Welsh-speaking Native Americans.
The stage is decked out with various props and signifiers of Evans’ journey across the North American continent. Rhys’ setup is small; there are no backing musicians, just a guitar, some effects and iPad through which he controls the slide show.
The songs themselves are deftly crafted and work surprisingly well as solo performances – from the runaway-train rockabilly of 100 Unread Messages to the Native American chanting of Allweddellau Allweddol to The Swamp, a surprisingly moving meditation on death.
After an encore of solo songs, support act Martin Carr joins Rhys onstage for a rendition of Kevin Ayers’ Religious Experience. A song about the joy of singing, it seems a fitting end to the evening.
words DAVID GRIFFITHS