What else to do when the rain is lashing down and the wind is whipping you in the face but go and stand in a hushed room, watching two men perform some experimental music? Watching Group Listening could only be described as a ‘what the f*ck’ moment. As in, no one really knows what’s going on but at the same time want to know more about this peculiar duo, who seem awkward faced with the polite applause of a rather bemused Brighton. Their debut album, Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works Vol. 1 features ambient works from the likes of Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt – Welshman Stephen Black, on clarinet, is best known as Sweet Baboo (who has previously collaborated with Gruff) and pianist Paul is acclaimed in the genre of jazz and noise improv. Both are undoubtedly talented, using their instruments, cassette recordings and other manipulative techniques to create atmospheric instrumentals. However, it appears that the crowd was not expecting something so, well, weird because few seem to get it; amazing given that we are in a city named this year as the hipster capital of the world, surely a place that this sort of thing was invented for.
On record, Group Listening are quite sublime with a flair for creating rich texture and clever combinations of classical and experimental. However, mesmerising compositions like ‘Happy Whistler’ and ‘Julie With’ sadly don’t translate to their live act tonight, which more or less falls flat on its arse. “This is our last song. Thank you very much. You’ve been… quiet”, Black mocks and there is at last a sign of life from those standing in front of him, before he goes on to introduce ‘Wenn Der Sudwind Weht’, as music designed to get children to sleep. “Perfect for a Friday night”, he jokes. Unfortunately, I don’t think the day of the week has anything to do with the reaction they get.
Given his choice of warm up act, Gruff Rhys arguably has a lot to make up for. “Welcome to Babelsberg. Population: 543”, he says when he eventually appears, after a wait just long enough to ensure mild discomfort and then ultimately relief in the audience. The album’s artwork is projected behind him, its political humour and social commentary a reminder of the foundation of most of its songs. There is no mini-orchestra, as was anticipated; instead Rhys is joined on stage by a pianist, Stephen Black on bass and backing vocals, and a wild American drummer called Cliff (who, being barefoot and tattooed, is undeniably more rock and roll than the rest of them). As Gruff holds aloft a cue card that reads ‘Side 1’, he explains that he is going to play his latest long-player in its entirety. By the end of opening track ‘Frontier Man’, we have completely fallen in love with him all over again.
Rhys uses classic melody that is sometimes so beautiful that this reviewer was nearly sobbing into her cider with joy. “They threw me to the sea / Into the path of hammerhead sharks” he sings during a triumphantly nostalgic ‘The Club’. The music is so romantic that the lyrics are disarming, providing a hidden depth to what appears on the surface to be otherwise quirky songwriting. Though his vocal is as deadpan as his apparently introverted persona, he still draws easy comparisons to a Welsh Serge Gainsbourg, which isn’t surprising considering Gruff’s own meticulous approach to creativity. The upbeat frenzy of ‘Oh Dear!’ gives way to a more theatrical ‘Architecture of Amnesia’ and the sheer harmonic delight of ‘Negative Vibes’ (when we get to ‘Side 2’), justifying that, even if performed without its lavish orchestration, Babelsberg is truly one of 2018’s standout moments, influenced by a variety of genres but wrapped up in one gloriously recognisable pop package.
Before we know it, Rhys announces, “We’re leaving Babelsberg now”, as the final bars of ‘Selfies in the Sunset’ draw to a close. By now, he is using the screen backdrop as something of a Powerpoint presentation, complete with remote control to change slides, which flash up various slogans, no doubt inspired by the video to ‘American Interior’. The backdrop changes to a simple text: ‘BREXIT IS LIKE A BAD SAX SOLO’. “Colonise the moon with all those bad ideas” Rhys murmurs. “I vomited throughout your saxophone solo”, he continues as Black reappears with said saxophone for Super Furries B-side, ‘Colonise The Moon’ – playing Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ to demonstrate how bad a sax solo can actually be. While the playful comedy is well-received, it doesn’t detract from how good a guitarist Rhys is on tracks like this either. In a recent interview with Brightonsfinest, he did explain that we could expect pyrotechnics of the mind from his live show and the neurons are definitely firing, even more so when he rolls his ‘r’s.
What follows is some of the best of Rhys’ back catalogue; familiarly gorgeous, sometimes sung in Welsh, the set includes what is a definite highlight in the dreamy ‘American Interior’, displaying a style that has earned him a loyal following over his 20-odd years in the business. There isn’t a second of the nearly two-hour performance that he doesn’t maintain attention, whether contemplatively soft in tone or screaming into a microphone as the band ramp up the volume in a brief tinnitus-inducing interlude. ‘LOUDER’, the slideshow urges before encouraging a ‘RIPPLE OF APPLAUSE’ and, inevitably, to ‘RESIST PHONY ENCORES’. As the words ‘THE END’ appear, so finishes an evening where it was plain to see that his fascinating personality and prowess for indie-pop perfection mean that, whether he likes it or not, Gruff Rhys is surely one of the coolest British musicians alive today. Whatever next.