words: NOEL GARDNER photos: PAUL CARR
A Gruff Rhys solo album may not, in 2011, be the kind of big banker that moves record execs and their families to Chelsea town houses within six months. With the understanding that the music biz is shafted, and the only bands not literally dying of starvation are U2 and Jem & The Holograms or someone (this is what you’re supposed to write now, isn’t it?), a Gruff Rhys solo album can still be a big deal to a small but faithful amount of people. To wit, this one-off hometown show upfront of Hotel Shampoo, the Super Furries frontman’s third solo effort. It was announced by the venue, a small and commendable bar that feels a bit like a living room, a day before taking place, with attendees decided by competition. They certainly didn’t have a problem filling it: a good view is at a premium.
Objects available to view include Gruff, his two guitars, a couple of toy keyboards and some ‘comedy audience’ signs saying APPLAUSE. Oh, plus support act and pal H Hawkline – aka local psych-folk artist Huw Evans – joining him for the final two songs, one a cover of Meic Stevens’ Carangarw. For a purposefully stripped-down show, there’s a fair bit going on: Gruff barely seems capable of merely sitting down with an acoustic and strumming through his catalogue. In a good way.
Shark Ridden Waters, like the recorded version – Hotel Shampoo’s opener and recent single – is underpinned by a Finnish birdsong sample (the record itself is Finnish, Gruff clarifies, not the birdsong itself), played here on a portable turntable. It’s one of a number of songs in his larder which is repositioned, and perhaps even improved, by a solo performance which magnifies its 70s folk-rock tendencies. Tracks from his bold if imperfect second album Candylion are dealt with differently: the title track is literally just Gruff singing along to the single (for other songs, such as Hotel Shampoo’s closing track Rubble Rubble, he’s had dubplates of the beat specially pressed), while Cycle Of Violence is aided by the same ‘motion sensitive’ drumsticks he used onstage with Tony Da Gattora last year.
Only one Super Furries track is played, a less-than-canonical B-side entitled Colonise The Moon whose hook, so to speak, is the repeated lyric “I vomited throughout your saxophone solo.” No-one seems concerned by this, and no-one is unwilling to applaud just because a sign tells them to. Gruff’s performance lasts almost 90 minutes, which is a bit much – especially in a small, humid room – but it all feels very sincere, and free of that embarrassed awkwardness often associated with ‘big’ artists performing to intentionally limited audiences.