American Interior is more than the latest concept album from Gruff Rhys, it is an extraordinary multi-platform adventure telling tall tales and following the footsteps of Welsh pioneer John Evans. As well as the album, which is wonderful, there is a film, a book and an app. Each can stand alone, but adds to the exploration of Evans’s remarkable life story. Then there is the show, which I saw at Revelation St Mary’s on Friday night, and that’s the part I’m going to tell you about.
This was very much a show rather than a gig, it was a fully-formed and well thought-through performance that enhanced the experience of listening to American Interior the album. Gruff was more storytelling troubadour than rock star. It was a perfect bit of programming for Revelation, where I’ve come to expect to hear excellent music while still anticipating surprises. There was no support, but the evening wasn’t all about Gruff Rhys, it was mostly about John Evans.
I don’t want to tell you all the details of his story, there is something alluring about gradually uncovering it with each element of the project and I hope you’ll want to go and discover it yourself. However, I do need to give you some background. Context is essential, which is why after Gruff popped on stage to say welcome, we watched some documentary footage. It may sound like a strange way to start an evening of live music, but as well as imparting the knowledge we needed, it also set the tone for the evening. It prepared the audience to listen, to expect something surreal and special, something which we might actually learn from along the way.
The video footage was about the legend of the Welsh Prince Madoc. who was said to have discovered America 300 years before Columbus, leaving behind his descendants, a tribe of Welsh speaking Indians. It was this compelling tale that led John Evans to voyage to America in the 1790s, in search of the mythical Welsh tribe.
Evans was an ordinary man that did something extraordinary, travelling from Wales to London to Baltimore, to walk across the American Interior, along an alligator-rich Mississippi, then mapping the Missouri before reaching the Mandan Tribes to discover they weren’t very Welsh at all.
Gruff is a wonderful song-writer, but also it turns out, a very clever story-teller. Between songs, Gruff detailed each stage of the voyage with a good dose of dry humour, using quirky illustrations by Pete Fowler and photographs of Mr Evans 2.0, a bionic puppet reincarnation made by the talented Felt Mistress. Some snaps were taken on Gruff’s own 2012 journey across the States and some may have been taken in Cardiff. All this cuteness made it fun to watch while upping the surreal quality of the story and balancing the sadness of it.
There are so many layers to the tale of Evans’s incredible quest – the colonial context of America at that time, the political ideologies of the Madoc myth, the exploration of new landscapes, the story of the man himself – but Gruff started at the beginning and recreated each step. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction, but Evans and his quest are both real. Gruff obviously did his research, but is playful in his deadpan delivery, simultaneously dispelling myths and recreating them.
Although there was creative use of iPad projections, illustrations, puppetry and props, it was all quite lo-fi. Essential equipment included an acoustic guitar, drum machine recordings, microphone effects and metronome.
The songs were atmospheric, each inspired by an element of John Evan’s life rather than a straight-forward narrative. This isn’t John Evans the musical. Instead the music invoked the landscapes, capturing the human experience, sometimes making fun at it’s futility, but also giving the quest the grandeur it deserves.
The title track American Interior was played early on, setting the mysterious dreamy mood and witty words that would carry us through the evening.
The Swamp is one of the sadder songs, but is also both wistful and wonderful, and one of my favourites. Beneath the humour and Gruff’s quiet charisma, which made the evening so enjoyable, was a tragic tale. That side of the story was very much told through the music. Beautiful songs like this, and Into the Wilderness sound so poignant amplified in this venue, I’m not sure if it is the acoustics or architecture, or most likely, a combination of the two.
Before the final number, Gruff joked that the whole show had been an introduction and that he’d now play the gig starting with 100 Unread Messages. This track is probably closest to the folk song narrative, it’s a joyfully jangly song which condenses the whole journey in it’s verses, with a catchy chorus remembering his family waiting back home for news.
I’ve been listening to the album again as I write this, each track seems a bit more poignant and the whole record sounds richer. I cannot stop thinking about the enigmatic Mr Evans and I’m looking forward to continue my exploration via the book and the app.
Evans died unaware of his cartographic legacy, his Missouri maps were found and used after his death. But I love that over 200 years later, he has another unknown legacy, one which would have been utterly inconceivable to Evans. That his life and his quest inspired Gruff to take the same voyage, make music, share his story and create an entire project around it. Then take it to a church in Ashford, where a room filled with live music lovers, listened attentively, laughed loudly, applauded enthusiastically and posed for photographs with a puppet made in his image. It was a very special night.
Find out more about Gruff Rhys at http://www.gruffrhys.com and about American Interior – the album, the book, the film and the app at http://www.american-interior.com or you can stream the album here.
I’m so excited about this season of Revelation events visit Revelation St Mary’s website to see what is coming up and book your tickets. Make sure you don’t miss a thing by following @RevelationSTM on Twitter and liking the Revelation STM Facebook page.