Who better to celebrate the glorious return of live music with than the fabulous Gruff Rhys?
I expected to feel a lot of things as I ventured out to this, my first post-lockdown gig. I thought the significance of returning to Islington, where my very last gig before the pandemic took place, would hit me strongly. I felt sure I’d become emotional at the fact that my live music drought was being broken by a man who was there at my very first gig in London nearly 25 years ago.
What I did not expect, however, was just how normal it would feel to be back at a gig. True, there was a bit of extra faffery in order to get into the venue – a temperature check, a QR code to scan – but to anyone familiar with the security measures added to the gig experiences after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, this was nothing extraordinary. And while the crowd was of course greatly reduced from what you would normally expect, the atmosphere was completely undimmed. As I sat in my balcony seat waiting for Gruff, the overriding sense was: here is normality. And it felt brilliant.
Despite the fact that the Super Furry Animals are one of my most seen bands – nine times at current count – I must admit I haven’t followed Gruff’s solo career as closely as I should. However, when this socially disctanced gig was announced in December, I jumped at the chance to witness this most wonderful singer live, and immediately started delving into his back catalogue. Originally scheduled for February, this gig was pushed back to May because of Lockdown 3, and on the day of the gig his majestic new album “Seeking New Gods” was released.
I was therefore expecting the show to be heavily focussed on the new album, but instead it was more like An Evening With Gruff than a regular gig. He came on stage carrying a host of signs which I remembered seeing him brandish at the Super Furries’ Roundhouse show in 2016, when they played their first two albums in full (gig no.134, patient reader!). The signs implored the audience to show appreciation escalating from “Applause” to “Ape Shit!” and despite the sparsity of the crowd we did a pretty good job of it.
Then, with the help of a slide show of photos projected on the screen behind him, he took us through a selected history of his musical career. Beginning with a slide declaring “Fuck Off Everyone” (“please don’t” he plaintively added) he explained that this was the English translation of the name of his first band Ffa Coffi Pawb, and played one of their songs “Valium”, followed by the infectious “Pang!” and the American Wild West tinged “Iolo”. His voice retains all of its peaty, single-malt-whisky richness of years gone by, and hearing him perform these songs live, alone on stage accompanied only by an array of instruments, felt like a rare privilege.
I have to admit that the highlight of the night for me was undoubtedly “Gathering Moss” from the Super Furry Animals’ debut. This was a song I had, upon seeing the Super Furries live in 1997, described as “the most gorgeously sad, heart-tearingly resigned hymn to hibernation“, and it’s true to say that listening to the heart-rending acoustic version he performed here had me transported back in time to the room I lived in that year, sitting on my bed listening to “Fuzzy Logic” on my discman and contemplating the incredible crushing weight of youth and hope. Hearing Gruff sing it again now after this past year of enforced hibernation, it felt even more apt, a cautionary tale against withdrawal and stagnation.
With a wit simultaneously sharp and warm, Gruff interspersed the songs with numerous stories and observations. He elucidated engagingly on the concept of a psychological group – such as those of us in that room who had all chosen to be there at that particular time – versus a physical group, who simply find each other in the same place randomly. He went through the evolution of his use of signs on stage, where printing errors led to “WHOA” coming out as “WOHA” and musing that “WOHA” was perhaps an apt description of how it feels to be in a gig crowd. Best of all, his story about singing with Damon Albarn and Paul McCartney, leading to a hilarious snapshot of McCartney’s expression when Damon held up one of Gruff’s sign proclaiming “Tax The Rich”, was worth the price of admission alone.
The latter half of the set included a trio of tracks from his new album, of which the sombre, stirring title track was particularly beautiful. And I must thank the audience member who, during final run of tunes, shouted for “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru” which Gruff acceded to after slight hesitation. I had not heard this song before but it’s an unfeasibly catchy and uplifting tune, and it’s safe to say it’s been stuck in my head all weekend and I never want to listen to anything else ever again.
I left this gig feeling like some little bit of humanity and normality had been restored to my life. I don’t know whether live music will return to its full glory in time with the roadmap schedule, or if new pandemic-related restrictions will mess with the plans. But whatever happens, at least 2021 will not go down as a gigless year for me.
But even more importantly, I left with the absolute certainty that Gruff is one the greatest singer/songwriters of my lifetime, in and out of the Super Furry Animals, and I have been an idiot to have ignored his solo work until now. If there’s one thing that the gigless year of lockdown has taught me, it’s that as a music fan, I could not have been luckier than to be born when I was, to have had my youth soundtracked by uncountably brilliant music made by people like Gruff, and I need to take every opportunity to experience the bands and voices of my generation as much as possible before we all get too old to creak on out to Islington for a night of gigging.
So when gigs do return fully, I will be out to see as many shows as I can from the geniuses who soundtracked my youth, and when Gruff plays London again later this year, you can be sure that I’ll be there in that psychological group, down the front and ready to sing along and shout “WOHA” once again.