by Elliot Davies
Whilst trudging the Cwmcarn Forest Drive, we ended up at Madoc’s Place. Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd was a Welsh prince who may have sailed to America in 1170. In 1793, an expedition was launched to find the Mandan – a Native American tribe that was thought to have descended from Madoc’s contemporaries.
It’s likely that this expedition was merely a move to strengthen British sovereignty in America, but nobody told young John Evans. Expecting to find a tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans, he ultimately hoped to organise a mass Welsh exodus, helping his compatriots to escape the tyranny of the English. With this in mind, he travelled some 1,800 miles up the mighty Missouri river.
During his travels, he was imprisoned as a spy, he suffered from multiple bouts of malaria, and he annexed almost a third of the North American landmass for the Spanish, seemingly by accident. Although he succeeded in finding the Mandan, he was disappointed to find that they were not in the slightest bit Welsh.
The story of John Evans is as tragic as it’s absurd. Now it’s been brought to life by an immersive audio-visual extravaganza, using the very latest in touchscreen PowerPoint technology. Gruff Rhys leads the proceedings, joined a merry band of historian musicians and, for the first time ever in Nottingham, John Evans himself! He’s been immortalised in glorious felt based upon extensive research carried out by the artist Pete Fowler, who spent some time studying 18th century DNA patterns found in Evans’s hometown, Waunfawr.
But first, some music.
Supporting tonight is Gwenno. Ex of The Pippettes, and erstwhile touring partner of Pnau and Elton John, she blends light industrial beats with technicolour synths to create a sound that sits snugly between Poliça dub and Saint Etienne wonder.
She plays to a backdrop of stock footage depicting production lines, explosions, and retro video games, and all of her songs are sung entirely in Welsh and Cornish. I speak neither language, but her song introductions reveal that she’s dealing with such topics as mind control, revolution, and robotic slavery.
All musicians arrived late tonight, which unfortunately meant that Gwenno was forced to start her set before most of the crowd had even been granted access to the venue. It was only as her set progressed, and the crowd was able to ruckle nicely with pints, that her music was given the rapt attention, and warm reception, it deserved.
Indeed, tonight is a night full of rapt attention and warm reception. Gruff takes to the stage in a furry hat and a deflated life jacket to introduce a lenghty excerpt from a 1980s documentary about Madoc and the Mandan. Silently and respectfully, the crowd took the whole thing in. Is this evidence that Gruff Rhys commands respect – when he tells us to be quiet, we listen – or is it a sign that the story of John Evans is engrossing enough to captivate any crowd?
Over the next 90 minutes or so, Gruff and the gang brought the story of John Evans to life using a combination of song and storytelling. The majority of the music obviously came from Gruff’s excellent American Interior album, but opportunities were also found to weave some of his older songs into the narrative. John’s treacherous trans-Atlantic journey was soundtracked by Shark Ridden Waters, whilst a bromance with a sailor was accompanied by a touching rendition of If We Were Words We Would Rhyme.
A starstruck cheer arose once the felt avatar of John Evans was finally revealed, and it’s easy to understand why. With his stoic face and his grey clothing, smart as a button, John Evans made for the most dignified and endearing puppet I’ve ever seen. At one point a dramatic reenactment took place of an attempt on John’s life by a Canadian assassin. The tension in the room was palpable.
I don’t believe I’ve ever loved anything as much as I love that John Evans avatar. Look at his face. Just look at it.
Gruff’s gang of historian musicians were fantastic throughout. Welsh surf rock outfit Y Niwl made up the bulk of the band, but occupying the drummer’s seat was Flaming Lips exile Kliph Scurlock. As a drummer, he’s an absolute monster. He’s able to combine the fluidity of a jazz drummer with the formidable power of a rock drummer. Last time I saw The Flaming Lips, his presence was sorely missed. It was an absolute treat to hear him play again.
John Evans lived a life of misadventure, doggedly pursuing an impossible goal for reasons he would ultimately realise to be bogus. He died young, impoverished, unfulfilled, and delirious with malaria. But Gruff is kind enough to put a positive spin on his story: Granted, there was no tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans, but that only means that at no point in history have the Welsh been a bunch of colonialist bastards.
Also, Evans may have died an undignified and untimely death in New Orleans, but he was buried in the very same graveyard in which they would ultimately drop acid in the film Easy Rider. And that’s really something.
But all things considered, the story of John Evans is the story of a young man with very grim prospects, and very little to live for, who nonetheless found something to inspire him, drive him, and define him.
Gruff ends the story of John Evans with 100 Unread Messages, which acts as a breathlessly rollicking summation of his travels. Grooving to it whilst gazing into the eyes of that solemn puppet, it’s hard not to feel emotional.
It feels the end of an expertly crafted and meticulously soundtracked feelgood dramedy epic. Which is exactly what it is.