This year’s Festival of Voice played host to a world premiere on Sunday evening, as Gruff Rhys presented his fifth solo album Babelsberg in his first ever orchestral show, supported by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales; and the Donald Gordon Theatre, packed to the rafters with ardent fans of the eccentric front man, sounded every bit as good as its designers planned it.
A solo Rhys took to the stage with a characteristically laid-back launch, singing the 2000 SFA single ‘Cryndod yn ei Lais’ and the joyfully received tongue twister ‘Iolo’ before being joined on stage by band members Stephen Black, Kliph Scurlock, Osian Gwynedd, and singers Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf, to perform a back catalogue of well-loved hits. The six sat before the silent instruments of the 72-piece BBC NOW orchestra, under swirling lights (that wouldn’t be out of place in a post-Eisteddfod barn rave) until Stephen McNeff’s post-interval entrance to conduct the stirring orchestral score that he himself composed.
Rhys, is no showy performer. He speaks to the audience as naturally as if they were familiar guests in is living room; and like anthracite, he holds power with little outward display of effort. His lyrics are often political but not preachy, and although written two years ago (and shelved ready for McNeff’s composition) are just as pertinent now in the Trump/Brexit era. But there is nothing cynical or angry here, as the orchestral score uplifts and the audience is buoyed by Rhys’ deadpan wit and solid honesty.
The evening followed the track list as laid out in the album, with the soaring chords of ‘Drones in the City’ (for this the lighting was efective) and the satirically upbeat ‘Negative Vibes’ particular highlights. This was a sincere presentation of old and new observational work that was warmly welcomed into the bosom of his (mostly Welsh) fans.
Rhys was supported by H. Hawkline, an almost doppelgänger-like guitarist with a laconic style, who presented a short but sweet set of “bizarro-world psychedelic pop music” even without being allowed to touch the Steinway behind him.
Babelberg is available from all good record shops