Gruff Rhys brings to Boston a fondness for the cheerfully absurd


There must be something in that Welsh water.

There’s a disproportionate amount of truly great bands and artists that come from Wales. From Cate Le Bon and Sweet Baboo to Gwenno Saunders and H. Hawkline, a handful of writers have crafted some of the best hooks around. Gruff Rhys is no exception.

“I don’t know if it’s coincidence beyond everyone enjoying melodic psychedelic pop records,” the Super Furry Animals frontman pondered to Vanyaland before his Monday show (October 8) at Great Scott in Allston. “There’s a very old tradition of hymn writing [in Wales]. Well…when I say ‘old,’ I mean in the kind of ‘modern era.’ There were loads of melodic hymn writers coming out of Wales. At first that was like the pop music of the period. I think there’s an academic study there for someone to find the link with that pre-rock and roll hymn writing tradition.”

Lucky for us as we await this now-inevitable dissertation, we have Babelsberg. Rhys’ latest release addresses the the world in a way that he is all too adept. His focus is on the mundane and momentous whilst keeping things silly and sincere. And with the help of composer Stephen McNeff the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (72 members) expanding the sound of the core four piece, it’s an immense landmark of his solo career.

On this sleepy Monday, opener Lorkin O’Reilly was a force unto himself. A fresh singer-songwriter from upstate New York via Scotland fresh off the release of his debut Heaven Depends, he charmed the crowd with his gentle fingerpicking and weighty, matter-of-fact lyrics. His songs were emblematic of folks at its varied bests: Tender, stark, and honest (even through the potentially fictitious).

Before the headline set, the crowd was primed with a most ludicrous litmus test. The house music before the show was the Beatles classic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with a slight twist: A 20-plus minute loop of the final 45 seconds or so of distortion and groove.

As if the stage were not already set, both figuratively and literally, the lights were dimmed and the band emerged to the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s triumphantly terrible rendition of “Also sprach Zarathustra.” And yet… where is there to go but somewhere just as earnest but with a lot more musicianship?

As anyone who has followed his career might have known, or could have gathered from the strange and silly setup, Rhys has a fondness for the cheerfully absurd. As a result, he remains one of the few artists that effectively utilizes cue cards in their shows. The four piece played the entirety of Babelsberg (both Side 1 and Side 2, as the cards indicated) without stopping for as much as the occasional thanks. But unlike most “full album” shows, there was a new feeling to the songs unlike that on the record. Without the orchestral backing, the tunes were even more on display. And they were just as strong, showcasing the talent of both Rhys as a consummate songwriter and his band.

For this tour, Rhys was backed by the core band of the record. Bassist Stephen Black (of Sweet Baboo and Group listening), pianist Osian Gwynedd, and Kliph Scurlock on drums (some might recall as the former drummer of The Flaming Lips). They were a tight group, with Black’s poppy low-end, Gwynedd’s spirited accompaniment and wistful flourishes, and Kliph’s precise drumming which you could set your heart rate to if you’d like. At times, Kliph’s large sound was the thing to watch (without overshadowing). As Gruff describes his sound: “He sounds… huge. It’s Kliph.”

Without the pomp of leaving before an encore, but the raising of a cue card that read “Resist Phony Encores,” the group treated the energetic crowd to a few other non-Babelsberg tunes. Complete with coffee break, “The Court of King Arthur” was dedicated to the archaeologists in the crowd (possibly one). Along with “Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be),” “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru,” “Sensations in the Dark,” and “American Interior,” the band tried out a new song that had never been sung before. So fresh that the lyrics were completed just before the show.

Just after everything was turned into a rocking, overdriven cacophony, the set was closed with a heartwarming cover of Cardinal’s “You’ve Lost Me There.”

Rhys and Co. put on a show that could win over the most stonehearted of crowds without resorting to the saccharine and schmaltzy. After all, the crowd stuck to the stage and not the bar area televisions showing the Red Sox/Yankees smackdown. That accounts for something.

Featured image by Nick Calvino.