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.
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.