Gruff Rhys and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales review – lush, epic frontiers of Welsh pop

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
New album Babelsberg was well-suited to the grand occasion, with flavours of Glen Campbell among spacious melodies

As celebrations of modern Welshness go, a gig featuring Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys with Wales’s 72-piece national orchestra, next to the country’s government HQ, is a tough one to top – especially as it’s part of Cardiff’s ever-expanding Festival of Voice. Rhys’s music is getting more ornate and political as he gets older. His last releases were 2016 pop protest song I Love EU and a jazz-flavoured soundtrack to the Dylan Thomas film Set Fire to the Stars. The latter showed how his strangely lovely, gloomy voice is suited to grander settings, as it is tonight, where his fifth album, Babelsberg, is brought to string-and-brass-dazzled life.

Rhys’s band begin proceedings, however, playing looser, more anarchic songs from his back catalogue. Rhys lopes on stage unassumingly, all in black, his drummer Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips) counts the band in in Welsh, and powers forward simpler, more absurd songs such as Gyrru, Gyrru, Gyrru (Driving, Driving, Driving) and Iolo. But after the interval, things take a lusher turn.

Epic vistas keep emerging … Gruff Rhys and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Epic vistas keep emerging … Gruff Rhys and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Photograph: Janire Najera/4PI Productions

Swansea composer Stephen McNeff, conducting tonight, wrote the expansive arrangements for Babelsberg. They’re beautiful retro-flavoured concoctions, summoning up the ghosts of Glen Campbell and Lee Hazlewood. Frontier Man matches the rolling country gait of Jimmy Webb’s Galveston with lyrics that suggest the delusion of Donald Trump (despite being written before he was elected). Limited Edition Heart and Same Old Song fit dark lyrics against gorgeously summery, wall-of-sound 60s soundscapes. Drones in the City is a particularly stunning moment, with woodwind and timpani decorating an eerie, sparse tale of future war. Even finishing the show with a track that didn’t make the album, Harvest the Pixels, works, as epic vistas keep emerging through Rhys’s spacious melodies.

He ends the show holding up signs. One says, Diolch (thank you), another, Prolonged Applause, which extends, and deservedly so.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gruff Rhys: Babelsberg review – never mind dystopia, feel the orchestra
It’s supposed to be a paean to alienation, but Rhys uses 72 musicians to focus the mind on a lush 70s-style sound palette

Michael Hann

08, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Gruff Rhys: Pang! review – acoustic, pastoral, global … and as unpredictable as ever
Sung in Welsh, produced by South African artist Muzi, Rhys’s latest is a chamber folk-rock minor masterpiece

Michael Hann

13, Sep, 2019 @8:30 AM

Article image
Gruff Rhys: my musical take on the communist Forrest Gump
He rubbed elbows with Hemingway and Che, and is the subject of a new show. Gruff Rhys, who wrote the music, tells Alfred Hickling how he grew fascinated by the publisher Feltrinelli

Alfred Hickling

01, May, 2013 @6:30 PM

Gruff Rhys – review
A wonderful 90 minutes with the maverick Welshman, part wistful singer-songwriter, part bone-dry comic. No one else makes music like this, writes Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

19, Jul, 2011 @6:00 PM

Article image
Gruff Rhys: Set Fire to the Stars review – indie hero turns jazz-era soundtracker

Harriet Gibsone

06, Oct, 2016 @9:00 PM

Article image
Gruff Rhys review – renewed appreciation for two Welsh trailblazers
The former Super Furry Animals frontman performs yet another distinct incarnation of the John Evans story with focus and fun, writes Graeme Virtue

Graeme Virtue

08, Sep, 2014 @12:55 PM

Gruff Rhys, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Betty Clarke

06, Mar, 2007 @1:46 AM

Article image
CD: Gruff Rhys, Candylion

(Rough Trade)

Alexis Petridis

05, Jan, 2007 @11:58 PM

Article image
Gruff Rhys: American Interior review – wit, originality and indelible tunes
The former Super Furry Animals frontman's new concept album is an absolute pleasure, however much of the concept you care about, writes Jon Dennis

Jon Dennis

01, May, 2014 @8:30 PM

Gruff Rhys: Hotel Shampoo – review
Gruff Rhys's trawl through 20 years of life on the road produces a mellow, inventive yet slightly bleak album, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

13, Feb, 2011 @12:05 AM