In a slightly surprising less than full Horseshoe Tavern (given the sizable expat community in Toronto), Gruff Rhys shuffles on stage and kicks into the opening song of the night ‘Rubble Rubble’, the final track off his latest LP Hotel Shampoo. Clearly this is to be a stripped back show in comparison to his day job as front man of the Super Furry Animals – there are no tanks, power ranger outfits or bingo cages tonight. Instead the affable Welshman is here promoting his third solo outing. Instead he’s here as the author of a wonderfully crafted alt-pop record, a raw and deliberately purer composition to his regular band. As a performer Rhys manages to strike the right balance between his odd whims, lyrical humour, outright pop and heartfelt sentiment. More importantly, he always makes it seem effortless.
Fellow countrymen and opening act Y Niwl are serving as his backing band on this tour, and they sound wonderful, opening with an expansive version of ‘Gwn Mi Wn’ that found Rhys going from guitar to keyboards as the song sprawled out towards the end. Throughout the set, Rhys displays his dry, farcical sense of humour, only adding to the enthralling nature of most of his songs. Between, he raises cue cards branded with ‘Applause’ and ‘Woah!’ but truthfully there was no need. The subtle craft of Rhys’s songwriting is enough to keep an audience captivated.
Most of the set was filled with sprightly pop songs, like the magnificent rendition of ‘Sensations in the Dark’, featuring stellar work from Gruff on harmonica replacing the horns on the record. The most apparent change to the recorded version of the album is the shift from piano to acoustic guitar, a potentially difficult shift, but one that is handled with deft skill – the new interpretations of ‘Vitamin K’ and the Beatles-esque ‘Honey All Over’, which was blissed-out pop at its finest. There are no SFA songs in the set, although his Welsh language material does make an appearance. ‘Ni Yw Y Byd’ is introduced by telling the crowd, “this is a motivational number full of advice, lyrics like ‘Defy Gravity’ and the like.”
It’s impressive seeing Rhys grapple with the immense challenges of performing multi-faceted songs on his lonesome. Even with the constraints of performing solo, he is able to inject the set with varying tones and styles. Whether it is the trippy loops, samples and eerie electronica of his searing psychedelia or the comforting strains of his majestic pop sensibilities, the set has variety and melodic eccentricity at its finest.
The encore begins with Rhys explaining that “this next song starts at 30,000 feet in the air, so I’ll just do a brief safety demonstration so you know what to expect.” After pointing out a few emergency exits in the building, the band launch into an exploratory, 15-minute version of ‘Skylon!’, ending the night with a real spectacle. As this spaced-out excursion finally dies down and we are brought back to Earth, Rhys flips over his last cue card with ‘The End’ on it, bringing a fitting theatrical finish to an evening from one of the most engaging performers over the past 20 years in British music.