I’m sure the Writers Festival has had many historians over the years. Learned Professors who spent many years in dusty halls of records and libraries honing their skills to become known as a great mind on a particular subject, but they also have Gruff! I’m not sure how many letters he has after his name or whether he is particularly skilled as a historian, but that is his role in his latest project.
Gruff Rhys has set out to retrace the steps of one of his ancestors, John Evans who left his native Wales and went to America to find a legendary race of Welsh speaking Native Americans. Along the way he “wrestled reptiles in the Mississippi, hunted bison with the Omaha tribe of Nebraska, became a Spanish subject in St Louis and annexed North Dakota from the British”. While this all sounds very unlikely, this part of the story is supposedly true! Well, some of it anyway. The part that is probably a myth is that of Prince Madoc who found America 300 years before the Spanish and is responsible for a Welsh speaking Native American tribe. There is not much fact to back this up, and it doesn’t sound very likely to be honest!
The evening started a little earlier than most nights in Whelans, at just after 7 pm. There were seats at the front of the Whelans stage, and a small crowd as a lot of people were caught out by his arrival on stage. After a reading and a question and answer session, there was a short interval before the main event of the gig.
After playing a short Open University style documentary on Prince Madoc, which was all 70’s flairs and big hair, Gruff took to the stage. He had a variety of toys on stage with him, including caption cards, an I-pad, a record player, a metronome and most importantly his acoustic guitar! The night involved the story of John Evans told through a slide show, with a number of his songs played to join the story together.
Gruff retraced the trip that his ancestor took with a small eerie felt toy version of Evans, which looked like a ventriloquist dummy. The toy did get him into trouble in New Orleans where they took it for a voodoo doll! Gruff took photos wherever they went, so there are slides from all over Wales, England and the United States.
The most impressive songs on the night included the title track ‘American Interior’, ‘Iolo’,’Walk into the Wilderness’ and for the finale, the wonderful Johnny Cash style ‘100 unread messages’. ‘Sensations in the dark’ and ‘The court of King Arthur’ also featured, so the night was not made up solely of the new album. This was a proper free wheeling gig, with the story of John Evans allowing Gruff to mess with the variety of toys and generally entertain the troops. Gruff delivers fact and nonsense with the same dead pan style in his thick Welsh accent, so who knows where the truth starts and the lies end, but it was an entertaining night of music and story regardless.
The book American Interior is published by Penguin Books.
You can read our Album Review of Gruff Rhys – American Interior here.