Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Babelsberg – a journey to Gruff Rhys’ frontiers

Gruff Rhys is an artist who specialises in creating something new, unique and wonderful at least once a year. Markontour and other fans of the band which brought him to indie-fame were distraught when the Super Furry Animals went on hiatus in 2010, but left to his own devices Gruff Rhys ventured off in all kinds of interesting directions. Last night we had the pleasure of seeing him in his latest incarnation, a seer of dystopia, performing his new album, Babelsberg, in front of a rapt Oxford audience.

By Rhys’ standards Babelsberg is a conventional rock album – a collection of songs inspired by fear for the future, both personal and political. In ‘Same Old Song’ the artist is looking inward: “Coughing blood on an American tour / Left me bewildered / Concerned for my future”. ‘Frontiers of Delusion’ is an essay in self-criticism, “On the frontiers of delusion / I’m your foremost frontiersman … When the dinner isn’t ready / I’m your uninvited guest”.

But the broader narrative is influenced by prolonged visit to Trump’s USA – the cover art features the world’s most infamous narcissist sharing selfies with an unimpressed Jesus Christ, while God looks on, empowering a drone with his breath. Introducing ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, Gruff explains he was taking a picture of “some healthy people enjoying the sunset” when he realised he was in fact recording the atmospheric effects of chemical pollution. The real sun was behind him.

The album never gets depressing, however, because while the lyrics may be dystopian, the songs are driven along by lush melodies. On the studio-version, these are provided by the full support of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. On stage, things are powered by the clever, energetic drumming of Kliph Scurlock, ex of the Flaming Lip, his drum-kit side-on at the front of the stage, encouraging off-mike one-liners, as well as stick-work. There wasn’t room on the small stage for a string section, but Sweet Baboo provided half an orchestra himself, chipping in on flute, saxophone and bass (and having played clarinet in his own support-act slot), alongside a great keyboardist, whose name I didn’t catch in the mumbled introductions.

The band play Babelsberg in full, with Gruff holding up large signs to let us know when they’d moved from “Side One” to “Side Two”, as well as when to applaud and make more noise. Obviously he finished with the warning “Don’t follow signs”.

In the second half of the show we are treated to cracking versions of ‘Court of King Arthur’ and ‘Gyrru, Gyrru, Gyrru’ (‘Drive, Drive, Drive’ – which Rhys assures us could be about cycling, in deference to the high degree of bike usage in this university town) from the Candylion album; alongside a track from Praxis Makes Perfect, his biography of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, socialist intruiger and publisher of Dr Zhivago; and American Interior, Rhys’ film/book/app/album about John Evans, who accidentally mapped a third of the USA in his search for a lost Welsh-speaking Native American tribe.

In short: unique, wonderful, Gruff Rhys. Diolch!

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