Gruff Rhys - Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Sunday 2 October 2011

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Llandudno's Venue Cymru is an excellent facility, with all of the romance that word conveys. It's a sensible theatre, filled with sensible seats, lit by sensible lighting, with a sensible, unobtrusive carpet. All traces of character or charisma have been sacrificed to the utilitarian. As my friends and I hurtle down the A55 (although 'hurtle' in an over-laden one-litre Polo is wishful thinking) I worry that this mightn't be the best place to witness Gruff Rhys and his phantasmagoric show.

Gruff's tactic to confound the moribund is to turn the lights down real low. It's proper gloaming for music-hungry owls as we shuffle in, too late to catch Y Niwl (mortifying!). The stage has two counters to illustrate the Hotel Shampoo theme, but that's the only real sop to the concept.

The reason for the dimness becomes apparent when Gruff, with Y Niwl as his backing band, take the stage: a constant stream of off-kilter film clips are projected onto the back wall throughout the gig - images of garden birds, coupling couples, trippy patterns and clouds. It's an excellent accompaniment to the music that gives Gruff and Y Niwl the freedom to concentrate on making sounds.

And what sounds...

Alun's peerless twang, Sion's enervating bass, Pete's rolling groove, Gruff Ab Arwel's stabs of garage organ or second guitar. Recorders and various 'toy' instruments enrich sonic proceedings. It's an inspirational junk shop of ideas: retro instruments, plastic toys, pimped up Spanish guitar, all conjoined like droids in the belly of a Jawa transporter.

It's a very modern aesthetic of making best use of what's around you. Whatever has the potential to illuminate life with fun sparks. And - make no mistake - for all of the emotive heart in his songs, Gruff's motivating philosophy appears to be one of restless musical adventure and fun. His entire back catalogue is testament to that: anathema to dullness and suffocating grey.

It's all a tapestry around Gruff's voice. I don't know whether he gets as much credit for his singing as he deserves. His voice is suffused with a lachrymose joy, as rich and complicated as the music he writes. It conjures tears out of reluctant ducts during Pwdin Wy 2, despite me only understanding one word in six.

Much of the first half of the set is a reminder of how brilliant his first solo album, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, was. The playground singalong simplicity of Gwn Mi Wn, Ni Yw Y Byd and Pwdin Wy are timeless and impossible to resist. Smiles spread throughout the crowd. The double dip gets speared by notes and unity. Money does matter, unfortunately, but it's piffle in a puddle compared to the nebula of wonder hung around this room by Gruff's songs.

Candylion could charm a tax collector. In A House With No Mirrors, all Stooges' guitars, sounds so much more than a one-off tributary. Cycle Of Violence is a 21st century Love hooking in Hindi melodies, flamenco and West Coast psych so naturally you start to feel whole centuries and cultures nuzzling together. Caerffosiaeth, where Gruff backs himself with a scratchy 7" of Bontempi beats on a portable record deck, is simple, unshowy avant garde, a strange flowering of his love for Datblygu.

Only a quarter of the set is dedicated to Hotel Shampoo, the album he is ostensibly touring. I imagine that the set will morph, change and evolve as it progresses. Honey All Over was my highlight amongst a firmament of highlights, with harmonies even more luscious and impressive than those that break out over the album version.

Throughout, Gruff is the most genial and quietly entertaining of hosts. He's funny as heck, even if I'm not always entirely sure what he's saying.

The concert finishes with Skylon. Gruff plays aeroplane sounds on the record player. A drone fills the room like a million meditative bees. An airliner seat is brought to the front of the stage. Clouds fill the backdrop. Sion pins us to our seats with a hypnotic bass line. 15 minutes of the same few chords purr in the background like a plane in flight. Gruff intones his way through the drama that unfolds within the cabin.

The final "SKYLON!" is screamed as if, in this version of the song, the plane explodes just at the point it appears to have been saved by our bearded hero. The sky splits, we plummet to the ground, the house lights come up and the spell is broken.

We troop out of Venue Cymru - now, resolutely, just a theatre again, the grotto of wonders it has been for the last couple of hours already fading. I buy a mug and a couple of tour singles (beautiful!) and something strikes me like a casey in the face as I stand in the foyer. I've seen Gruff twice in the space of a few weeks. Both sets were very different, but equally great. Yet, in neither set did he once touch upon the glowing majesty of his day job's back catalogue.

That is astonishing.

Quietly - with some searingly loud interludes - this man has become the finest songwriter and visionary these isles - all of them - have produced for a very, very long time. On the dark way home, I tweet that I want this gig on a loop on my deathbed. I'm not being morbid - it's a homage to Huxley's hallucinogenic trip off this mortal coil (but a legal equivalent).

Gruff's music encompasses so much of what I love about being alive. If the Pharaohs got to be buried with their dearest possessions as company for the afterlife, I just want these wonderful sounds, please. For eternity.

Gruff Rhys plays St David's Hall, Cardiff on Wednesday 5 October.

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