Gruff Rhys
Rockwood Music Hall, New York, January 13
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Thursday was a cold and blustery night, but the draw of a promising double bill coupled with the Rockwood Music Hall’s intimate setting and close proximity to the F train were enough to lure me out of Brooklyn. While Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys was headlining this show, one of just a couple Stateside dates, Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces opened with a solo set, a rare but soon to be more regular occurrence (she has a solo album due out this year). As it turned out, both were more than enough reason to leave the house, with each of the artists showing their talents undiminished when stripped to the barest of accouterments.

After commenting that she doesn’t do this very often, Friedberger began with the title track from the Furnaces’ last release, I’m Going Away. When not playing new songs (presumably from the forthcoming album), it was the album she returned to most frequently—logical as its perhaps the most straightforward of the group’s records. Cuts like “Ray Bouvier” and “Lost at Sea” worked well peeled back to acoustic guitar and Eleanor’s sturdy voice, as did “Police Sweater Blood Vow” from Bitter Tea. With the fanciful arrangements the Furnaces sometimes favor gone, it was easy to hear the songs as the ostensible end result of time spent with blues rock records by, say, Big Brother & the Holding Company or Traffic. Not the most riveting of revelations, sure, but one usually doesn’t think of the Friedberger siblings as traditionalists. Eleanor’s new material fit in easily amongst the rest and revealed songwriting skills equal to that of brother Matthew, who is usually seen as the creative component of the pair.

Gruff Rhys wasn’t content to just bring along his acoustic guitar, but even a table full of keyboards and sundry other toys seems simple by comparison to the Super Furry Animals’ often elaborate stage set-ups. He began by accompanying himself with a 45 of bird noises. As he put it, though, he would be getting the “most miserable” songs out of the way first, which apparently include “Sophie Softly,” from his upcoming solo album, Hotel Shampoo, the Furries’ “Cryndod Yn Dy Lais” and “Lonesome Words” from Rhys’ 2007 release, Candylion. Rhys also played some new material yet to be recorded, but he made sure (as he explained) to play a little first as a preview so when he played the song for real, the audience wasn’t alienated by its unfamiliarity. Very courteous.

Throughout the show, Rhys would switch between his velcro-modified guitar and several cheap synths, which he accompanied with a bevy of strange noisemakers. For “Candylion,” though, he chose to simply use the intro from the actual single, repeatedly moving the needle back to the beginning of the record for the start of each verse. While such ploys made for laughs, they also showed how little is truly needed to compliment Rhys’ natural charms. “Sensations in the Dark” and “Cycle of Violence” were other highlights of the night, which ended as simply as it began, with Gruff spelling out “thanks” on a chalkboard, and proved that sometimes it doesn’t take much to amaze.