Gruff Rhys in Whelan’s, Dublin, on May 17th 2014
One man onstage is made from flesh and bone, the other stitched together from felt. The former is Gruff Rhys, our sentient guide through the travels of his distant ancestor, John Evans. ‘American Interior’ is the latest project from the endlessly inventive Rhys, combining an album, book, film and phone app detailing the journey of Evans to America in the latter stages of the 18th century to track down a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe.
The Super Furry Animals singer and Neon Neon co-conspirator is in Whelan’s tonight as part of the Dublin Writers Festival, armed with an acoustic guitar, a slide show, a fantastical piece of animal headgear (“It’s like a werewolf…I dunno”), and a tale to tell. For the uninitiated – most of the crowd, one would imagine – the room is darkened “so we can pretend we’re in the pictures” and a brief introductory film is shown detailing the journey of the Welsh Prince Madoc, who according to folklore sailed to America three hundred years before Columbus. The film raises frequent laughs – particularly the “sea of weed” reference and the bouffant of the presenter – but does its job nonetheless in bringing us up to speed, from Prince Madoc’s 12th century expedition to John Evans’ epic quest six hundred years later.
Rhys retraced Evans’ footsteps on his own quest through the American Mid-west in 2012, playing gigs as he went along. Tonight he’s our amiable narrator, interspersing songs with a travelogue of Evans’ fascinating forays. Evans is embodied by a puppet that accompanied Rhys on his trip – “It’s not a voodoo doll, it’s just a felt representation of my relative” as he explained along the way.
In a saga spanning centuries and continents, Rhys takes us through his conceptual song cycle using a small array of musical aids. A record player adds birdsong atop Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be) and ambient ocean noise to Shark Ridden Waters as the puppet Evans looks wistfully across the docks on the backdrop. The tick of a metronome emulates horses’ hooves on Lonesome Words, a song that sees Rhys dispense a startling falsetto as the tale of the intrepid adventurer draws nearer to its unfortunate conclusion.
Evans died at 29, his body buried, we are told, in the same cemetery used in the acid trip scene in Easy Rider. 100 Unread Messages ties it all together, Evans’ journey encapsulated in one song, and at this point the poignancy has hit us all. Rhys holds up a placard signalling the end, and the puppet John Evans, our hero, sits on the stage alone. His is a fascinating tale, brought to life with warmth and wit by his descendant, and it’s worth pointing out amidst all that’s going on that there’s a gem of an album at the heart of all of this – tonight’s acoustic rendering, and Gruff’s multimedia retrospective, is a joy from start to end.
Gruff Rhys Photo Gallery
Photos: Aaron Corr Gruff Rhys at Whelan’s | In Photos