Gruff Rhys + Matt Tow @ Excelsior Hotel, Sydney, 03.05.11

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by Victoria Birch

We’re crammed into the sweaty back room of Sydney’s Excelsior hotel wishing Matt Tow would get on with it. Someone said The Lovetones singer crafts songs that would give Lennon and McCartney a run for their money. Really? Who was that? His mum?

It’s a struggle to draw anything other than a massive yawn from his average strum-a-long material. It’s possible Matt Tow is somewhat bereft without a band but there’s really no excuse for stripping clean the pathos from Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’. Suddenly a song about wartime sacrifice is about as affecting as a stubbed toe. He tells us that he penned a couple of songs for The Brian Jonestown Massacre (or “those jokers” as he cringingly refers to them). He plays them. They’re not particularly interesting. [Neither are The Brian Jonestown Massacre – controversy-baiting Ed] All strum and no invention makes the audience want to chat the whole way through.

In retrospect most singers will appear fairly anodyne compared to Gruff Rhys: a man who owns a “box of bass”, Finnish bird song recordings and a large pair of motion drum sticks (no actual drums required).

Ah yes, the man. He gives a fuck. Gruff Rhys is a squillion miles from home and still manages to bring a huge assortment of odds and sods to augment his show: a plastic metronome, maracas, a brass shop bell, a clutch of vinyl (complete with portable turntable) and novelty microphone. The table in front of him is dribbling junk, making it look like an over zealous show-and-tell.

It would have been all too easy to shove this stuff onto a backing track; look at a low-key pub gig on the other side of the planet and find the lure of a laptop and a play button irresistible. But it’s his pleasure (and ours) when he lovingly extracts liquorice-coloured vinyl from a dog-eared sleeve and gives a potted account of Nordic ornithological adventures all so ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ gets its birdsong and brief spoken word intro.

Without the strange adjuncts Rhys has a nice collection of folky tunes. With them he has a nutball bag of charming oddities. Those ugly electric drumsticks pound the air to lend ‘Cycle Of Violence’ a necessarily cold synthetic pulse. ‘Sensations In The Dark’ pitches us into, er, darkness so he can show off the neon lights on his tinny keyboard and the metronome is perfectly paced for the Grandfather Clock effect in ‘Sophie Softly’.

It’s all done with a healthy sense of deadpan. Although Rhys is entirely serious in his one-man-show busyness he appreciates its absurdity. He holds aloft giant panels to give us direction to “Applause” or so he can say “Thank You” and litters the show with dry quips about his upside down guitar or Phil Collins blazing a trail for solo artists who want to split up from themselves.

The mixing and splicing and looping is quite a lot of hit but a little bit of miss. The sound is hard to keep on an even keel, there are false starts and unintentional off-kilter beats but the efforts are very much appreciated. It’s pushing midnight on a chilly Tuesday night and there’s no sign of the usual trickle of people heading off before the lights are up. We’re a transfixed audience; dazzled by the trickery, seduced by the song writing and just plain amused by the comic timing. Rhys even indulges those who are itching for a Super Furries number. It’s a rarely heard B-Side (‘Colonise The Moon’) – the perfect choice for someone who can give the audience what they want in a way they didn’t know they wanted it.

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