Quite an old crowd grace this long-standing Reading venue – mostly late 20s to mid-40s grown-ups who think it is acceptable to attend a gig wearing a fleece from Millets. You know, people who have mellowed. This attendee demographic would initially make sense when placed in cursory context of Gruff Rhys’ musical career. At 41, he is not particularly young himself, and (arguably) reached the height of his fame back in the mid-1990s with Super Furry Animals.
However, when I first heard Rhys’ new material from Hotel Shampoo, the artist’s third solo effort release in February 2011, I thought it was some of the freshest, most exciting and original music I had heard all year. His music has a light indie-folk veneer that on paper might not seem particularly innovative, but in practise Rhys’ music is clever, interesting, observant, and subtle, (all the adjectival hallmarks of hip genres du jour, such as chillwave and post-dubstep, for example). It is therefore a surprise that there are not more Reading scenesters here to sample Gruff Rhys’ juicy musical offering.
Rhys transfers all the complex subtleties and insightfulness clearly inherent in his creative mind into a performance full of multi-faceted artistry and consummate conceptual effort. This performance feels like an occasion – it is highly captivating, and above all professional. Rhys has three technicians, one purely dedicated to providing a real 16mm film slideshow as a visual backdrop, which has images tailored to each track. No images are recycled, and reel is constantly being maintained. There are also plenty of apt sound effects and recorded announcements, as well as visual props, including Rhys’ now renowned “applause boards”, which the artist coyly holds up at intervals throughout the performance.
Rhys offers a full set, with plenty of tracks from his back catalogue. He starts simply with Gwnmi Wn, a track with solid harmonies and a beautiful piano/keyboard part. He then ploughs through a variety of tracks, from calmer, softer, more melodious songs to the heavy, distorted mess of In a House with No Mirrors. Rhys performs a fair few of his Welsh language tracks, which surprisingly (for a staunchly southern English audience) go down well. These tracks in general have a slightly more folky vibe, but they should not be mistaken for trad-folk music. These tracks still have a good degree of oomph, and often feature a cool, eerily modal vibe, solidified by the visual and light displays. The inclusion of these Welsh tracks works – it does not feel alien, it just feels like good music.
Rhys finishes the night with Skylon, which runs like a complex, audio-visual play, featuring aeroplane sound effects, costumes, perfectly placed visuals and a complex narrative, all synced up in a very consummate and considered way. In a way this track is a good metaphor for Rhys’ entire performance, and indeed approach to music in general. He offers the audience an entire artistic experience, with a polite, pleasant confidence and diverse, perfectly executed music, in terms of sound, style, technique and presence. An excellent performance and a warm, though-provoking experience.