It’s not often you experience a full-on time-warp moment, but on stepping inside the Electric Ballroom, that’s exactly what happened to me. This was my first gig in the venue, but back in my first year in London, I would spend many a happy Saturday morning roaming its record fair in search of rare CD singles from my favourite bands. I probably haven’t entered the venue since 1997, however, and so once I was through the ticket check area the past came up to greet me with a tidal wave of nostalgic force. For a few seconds I fully believed was would descend the stairs to find a room packed with stalls proffering CD and seven inches.
However, it was soon revealed to be 2021 and not 1997, and a gig rather than a record fair was in store. And this gig felt in a way like coming full circle for me, as far as my 2021 gigging life in concerned. Back in May, Gruff Rhys broke my COVID-imposed gig drought with his excellent socially distanced show at the Islington Assembly Hall. At that point, I had no idea what the future would hold in terms of live music, and there was no knowing whether a new pandemic wave would occur that would force the music industry to shut down for another indeterminable period of time.
Five months later, and I’m seeing Gruff live again in the middle of one of the busiest gigging periods of my life. In the last two and a half months I’ve been to ten gigs, and it doesn’t look like things are slowing down any time soon. So I couldn’t help but think of that night in May as I roamed up to Camden this evening, and feel incredibly grateful that as far as live music is concerned, the fears I held for the future the last time I saw Gruff did not come to pass.
Having arrived just as doors opened, the crowd was very sparse to begin with, and so I snagged a centre barrier spot with ease. I enjoyed the short set from the first support act, N’famady Kouyate, a West African musician now based in Cardiff. Performing with gusto on his balafon – a kind of wooden xylophone lined underneath with gourds – he sang four infectious tunes with an engaging warmth and energy. Second support came from Bill Ryder-Jones, who gave us a set of guitar-based melodic indie tunes intermixed with some laconically sardonic interjections. His closing cover of the Super Furry Animals’ “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You” was an excellent choice, gearing the crowd up for the imminent appearance of that band’s lead singer.
Gruff came on at 9pm with his ever trusty signs, this time confidently letting us know that “the next 120 minutes will change your life” (though modestly continuing with “or maybe not”). Beginning with “Frontier Man”, the first part of the night’s set consisted of a selection of tunes from across his solo career such as the infectious “Pang!” and the rousing “At The Heart Of Love”.
Gruff was, as ever, in marvellous vocal form this evening, his incomparable voice perfectly evoking the mountainous, rocky terrains of which he sings on his latest album. Like Damon Albarn, he seems to be a pure musical force – albeit one who moves at a slightly slower rpm – constantly living for creating and performing music in many different guises. Having taken time to explore his solo back catalogue fully since the May show, I am endlessly astonished at how many incredible and different tunes he has in his armoury, from the catchily sweet “Honey All Over” to the rhythm driven “Bae Bae Bae” and the expansive, momentous might of the “Seeking New Gods” songs.
The aforementioned snowy mountainous terrains of his most recent album were visited next with a complete playthrough of the album. Hearing the album live from start to finish showcased just what a brilliant record it is. Track three, “Loan Your Loneliness”, was an early highlight of the gig, a storming prog-rock monster, with its guitars barrelling through your consciousness and lights flashing so blindingly I had to spend a lot of time with my eyes closed. It was a completely overwhelming and immersive experience, prompting huge cheers at its end.
The mountainous backdrop of the album’s cover was altered to reflect the climate of particular songs – lightning flashes for “Hiking In Lightning”, and for the closing “Distant Snowy Peaks”, a shimmer of drifting snowflakes. By the close of that reflective, mournfully beautiful song, you truly felt like you had spent the last hour wandering through precipices and wintry terrains.
Even more wonderful, for me, was the final run of tunes, commencing with the laidback grooviness of “Shark Ridden Waters”, somewhat extended here due to Gruff having to spend several minutes battling with recalcitrant leads while the rest of the band soldiered on with the tune.
But it was “Negative Vibes” that was the ultimate highlight of the night for me. This was a song I listened to obsessively throughout Lockdown Three, often late at night after a glass of wine or four, as I despairingly wondered whether or not I might ever see my favourite artists live again. To find myself in such a different position now, at the barrier in a wonderful venue witnessing Gruff perform that most uplifting song in front of me, was one of the most joyous gig experiences I’ve had in this season of renewed gigging life I find myself in now.
And to follow “Negative Vibes” with the unfathomably gorgeous “American Interior”, my other absolute favourite Gruff tune, just compounded the delight. By the time the gig closed with the raucous “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru” I found myself wondering if this might not have been the best gig I’ve been to so far this year.
As a music obsessive of a certain age, whose favourite artists are mostly now wading through their 50s or 60s, I occasionally fear that I have only a handful of years left in which to experience the joy of hearing my favourite songs performed live by the people who created them. However, watching Gruff this evening, I felt that I could easily see him performing and creating music for decades to come, and I can’t wait to find out what he might do next.
This gig, for me, perfectly encapsulated the sense of renewed optimism expressed in “Negative Vibes”:
Wash the cobwebs and the sorrow all away
As the wind is in the sails
Hibernation blows away
It seems time to take advantage of today
And after the times we’ve lived through recently, nothing feels quite so important as taking advantage of today.