“Please respect the quiet nature of tonight’s show — keep noise to a minimum,” read a simple A4 sign on the wall just to the right of the stage Oct. 23 at San Francisco’s The Chapel. This sign might have, at first, seemed like an unlikely preference for a man who famously arrived for a set at Glastonbury Festival in a military tank-turned-sound system. Yet, as the sound of white noise and static interference interspersed with droning and distorted jazz strains began to play, the crowd trickling into the nave of the venue was reassured that the Super Furry Animals frontman has not yet completely lost his penchant for zany theatrics.
The Chapel, with its exposed hardwood beams, pews of seats and both a Gothic-style chandelier and a glittering disco ball, is an apt setting for Gruff Rhys’ fifth solo album Babelsberg, which he set out to play in its entirety. This tribute-to-life album is comprised of lush orchestral swells, provided by Swansea composer Stephen McNeff and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, juxtaposed with burnished summer melodies and images of polarized societies and apocalyptic chaos.
Although a couple shades darker than the whimsical synth-pop of the Super Furry Animals, Babelsberg maintains the balance between the absurd and the profound that Rhys has mastered throughout his 30-odd-year career. His live set only served to emphasize this skill — even without the key theatrical aspect of the orchestra.
Opening the show was New York-based Scottish singer-songwriter Lorkin O’Reilly, whose country-folk mysticism was accompanied by nimble finger-picked guitar melodies and the odd use of a foot pedal — the mellow earnestness of his delivery seemed to win over the crowd in spite of the intense quietness of the room.
In a somewhat jarring but welcome contrast, Rhys took to the stage shortly after, backed by the melodramatic opening theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” hoisting up a rustic handwritten sign emblazoned with “BABELSBERG,” followed by “SIDE 1.”
He initiated a theme of cues that would continue throughout the set. Launching into the album’s opener “Frontier Man,” it was immediately evident how cohesive his band is, effortlessly filling in for a 72-piece orchestra with a couple of guitars, a drum set and a piano. The rolling country rhythm of the song was driven by ex-Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, while Rhys’ pleasantly gloomy voice rumbled along. Together, the sound produced evoked images of a “frontier of delusion” as well as a “nightmare of existence,” gesturing more toward the shared dependency of contemporary pop culture and politics on cults of personality than toward the trope of hard physical labor in a Stetson and boots.
The momentum continued into crowd favorite “Limited Edition Heart,” which pitched near-incomprehensible visions of bison burgers, onstage exorcisms and “limited edition porcupines” against overly cheery harmonies. “Selfies in the Sunset,” an upbeat Belle and Sebastian-esque tune, imagines the apocalypse as a nuclear golden hour: a tongue-in-cheek reassurance that even if society does end up crumbling around us, at least it will be colorful.
This unrelenting preoccupation with the absurdity of contemporary society and the implication that we’re too narcissistic to notice the grim impending consequences could have become strained and tiring if it wasn’t for the warmth and wit of Rhys’ stage presence. He entertained the right amount of chatter, just enough to keep things lively and maintain the natural, inclusive atmosphere without coming across as smarmy or disingenuous.
While the prospect of an encore was flatly refused — “We won’t go off and stare at the floor upstairs for 30 seconds,” Rhys deadpanned, holding aloft a “RESIST PHONY ENCORES” sign — the set was closed out with a generous selection of songs from Rhys’ back catalog. This included a Super Furry Animals track, some songs in Welsh (“Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru”), harmonica and flute solos and a song composed entirely from letters by Welsh 18th-century explorer John Evans.
At the end of the night, Rhys couldn’t resist one final gag at his own expense, holding up “APPLAUSE,” followed by “LOUDER” and finally “APESHIT.” The crowd obeyed, flying wonderfully in the face of the pre-gig noise warning — the little sign beside the stage was quickly dwarfed by an eagerly offered and well-deserved prolonged standing ovation. Orchestra or no orchestra, Gruff Rhys won’t leave until he has raised at least one eyebrow in the room.