For the average rock star, spending fifteen years on the road will most likely result in a life of hedonistic-debauchery, where the remnants of the mini-bar is often the staple meal of the day. For Gruff Rhys, endless years of lonely one-night whistle stops in faceless cities, spurred him on last year to present a whacky-Warholian- art-installation to the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. The title of the project was aptly named: Hotel Shampoo. Rhys took all things hotel related – mostly shampoo bottles that he had collected from Wisconsin to Waterford – to stage the aesthetic design.
Tonight at the Southbank Centre, Rhys has the stage resembling the reception of a swanky hotel on a Caribbean Island. This is closer to rock-pantomime than indie rock ‘n’ roll. Rhys has always struck me as a sort of Welsh version of Wayne Coyne. Mainly because he shares the same love for power pop – a genre that toys with the idea of achieving utopia through melody and cosmic noise – but also because of the strange sense of enthusiasm he possesses for props. Some of the objects on stage include: an airplane seat, several large green plants and a bunch of life sized cue cards.
What we get tonight is Hotel Shampoo the album in its entirety, followed by another hour of quirky theatrical avant-garde antics. Fusing ambient beats with country melodies, and spaghetti-western film scores, in tandem with stripped down guitar-based rock, is a genre that is perhaps indefinable. For Rhys, genre is used, not to define a style as such, but rather a place from which one enters the wreckage to rescue a golden melody. Tracks like ‘Honey All Over’ and ‘If We Were Words’ (We Would Rhyme), admittedly do sound like diluted versions of Super Furry Animal songs. Nevertheless, they still possess the sugar-coated ingredients that make a three minute pop song ever so sweet.
The negative effects of indulging in a two hour set list of Rhys’ solo material, however, is that the fillers reek of mediocrity. When you hear songs like ‘Conservation Conversation’, a dash for the bar might be in order. He introduces ‘Ni Yw Y Byd’ – which literary translates as ‘We Are The World’- by sardonically reminding the audience that it’s not a Welsh-language-tribute to Michael Jackson. When he’s not choreographing stage directions; spinning BBC sound-effects-records on his antique turntable; Rhys is running around like a mad scientist, or temporarily playing the role of a game-show host.
As proof that props are only secondary to the music, a small portion of the set is reserved for some gentle balladeering. It’s in this introspective period- where he plays a Spanish guitar upside down – that Rhys displays his compelling gift for songwriting. While one certainly cannot fault the entertainment factor on display here tonight, it still leaves the lingering question on everybody’s lips leaving the auditorium unanswered: just when will he return to the day job?