OK, full disclosure. My plus one for this gig in the biggest Rhys Lewis fan in the world. As in they once shared a Tube ride home together over a year ago and and Rhys recognised him as “Tube guy!” at the gig fan. Said mate convinced me to buy Bushstock tickets purely because Rhys was playing, so my first impression was him in a West London pub. Now, backed by keys, bass and drums and playing the fantastic OSLO in Hackney to end his first UK tour, he’s supreme.
Huge credit should go to his support Eleanor Nelly too – her songwriting is incredibly accomplished for someone so young, and the sweet charm she brings to the stage makes her instantly likeable. Well worth a listen.
Anyone that takes labels seriously would probably describe Rhys as ‘contemporary pop-tinged soul’ and in fairness, that’s not bad. His music is definitely radio friendly, but has more roots and blues in it than airplay favourites Sam Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man. The opening track ‘I Know The Feeling’ was a toe in the water; it sounds very ‘him’ without being overly flashy, which let the set build throughout the show.
‘Wish I Was Sober’ is upbeat and danceable, with a more pop sound than most of his tracks. The confessional self-deprecation in “I just assumed that you could read my mind / God I am amazed the rest of the bar didn’t prove me right” laid over beguiling beats keeps enough bite in the song to get you hooked. It does that weird CHVRCHES-style trick of putting sad lyrics over happy songs – you could play this at a party with friends and get halfway through singing along before you turn to each other and realise it’s not a drinks anthem and should we dance or cry?
‘Be Your Man’ is a slow burning soulful piano track that sounds like Elton John and Lenny Kravitz got together around the Steinway one day. The melody moves around slowly, drags you further in and emphasises the occasional soaring vocals to show off Rhys’ range. He didn’t have the full band backing him for this – I get why, but the interplay between the band was lost when it was just Rhys and keys. The distinctive full sound and clever arrangements really rely on all of them being up there
There’s a very vintage Delta blues feel to ‘Waking Up Without You’, created mostly by the staccato guitar patterns and brash riff. The intro sounds like smoke, Chevrolets and bbq sauce; the buildup to the bar fight in any Deep South dirt road farm town. It all changes in the verse as Rhys’ vocal comes in softer than expected and the guitar fades into something slinky and rhythm-led. It’s the kind of song that could be transformed with a live horn section dropping bits in here and there, but manages to sound contemporary and fits with the rest of the set
Rhys’ lyrics tend to serve the rhythm of his music before they tell a story, like Michael Jackson or HAIM. He uses his voice like another source of percussion, but gets into more emotional classic singer-songwriter feeling in ‘Living In The City’, which he introduces as a song about the weird, complicated relationship with this place. “I’m just trying to find me some kind of life I’ve dreamed about / And we’re all tired and lonely, hoping to figure this all out”. It’s a good go at lyrics that try to speak to his crowds – the mostly young audience at Hackney know what he felt. I found it strange hearing soul that captured what we’re all publicly talking about rather than trying to express personal emotion, but sometimes, like my friend told me, we need to “shut up and enjoy the music.”