American History Gruff Rhys

Goofball History, Great Music: Gruff Rhys at Schubas

Thursday, November 13, 2014 Rob Samuelson

Former Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is shy. He's unassuming. He has a quiet voice with a Welsh accent. He is not an authority figure.

This is why his entrance on the Schubas stage is funny.

“My name is Gruff, I'm in charge of your safety tonight,” he says to the crowd's delight.

He tells us he has a “safety demo” to play before the show can start. There's a large screen with a projector set up behind him. Soon a PBS-style travel show begins, talking about some crazy theories about Rhys's homeland and the folklore about their “accomplishments.”

The myth goes something like this: long before Columbus and things that rhyme with 1492, a Welsh prince named Madoc sailed the ocean blue. He and his followers made their way into the American interior, where they eventually became assimilated into American Indian tribes, leading to some of the most prosperous times for Plains Indians. In the late 1700s, following the American Revolution, a Welshman named John Evans went in search of Madoc's people and he led a wacky adventurous life. This part is true. Rhys is fascinated by it, so he built his new album and tour, appropriately entitled American Interior, around what amounts to a hilarious, Monty Python-style vacation slide show.

That slide show is something else. Rhys has commissioned the construction of a John Evans puppet to act as our visual guide through the American interior, and Rhys and his crew have spent their time here in the States taking pictures of this bemused looking felt doll in famous American locales. Sometimes he narrowly avoids being eaten by alligators. At others he is being arrested by a modern St. Louis police officer, framed and shot like an episode of Cops.

The neat trick Rhys pulls off is that, despite the inherent silliness of the slideshow and puppet, his songs depicting the same events have a deep melancholy. Evans was a bewitching man with an insane dream, chasing the ghosts of a myth. He talked his way out of an assassination attempt, and even, according to Rhys – what do you think I am, some kind of historian who fact checks? – Evans accidentally annexed a third of the United States that had been under Spanish control. His picaresque journey across America is embedded in our DNA, informing what we'd later call Manifest Destiny and our expansion to the Pacific. In fact, Evans's maps and plans were even used by Lewis and Clark on the early part of their expedition.

But Evans is also a uproariously misguided individual. It was goofy, even as far back as the 1790s, to assume there was a secret high society of white Native Americans who spoke Welsh, and to continue the search even after contracting Malaria. Per Rhys, he had a wildly optimistic view of humanity, going so far as to ask politely that a fort of soldiers abandon their fort because the territory didn't belong to them. And it worked!

Rhys has a loving sympathy for this unique eccentric, and his passion is contagious. We are all prone, anxiously awaiting the next bit of bizarro history, and moved to dancing by the skiffle-indebted songs. An hour and a half into the performance, he gets to Evans's death at age 29, and quips, “Now I'm ready to start the show.”

We laugh, thinking it's really the end of the concert, but he goes into some non-Evans songs, a couple Super Furry Animals numbers, and even ends on a request from the crowd.

Gruff Rhys's new solo album, American Interior, is available now. He is on North American tour through the end of month.

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