Damon Albarn review – anecdotes and emotion

It’s been some journey, these past 16 months of Covid-related stress, grief and restrictions. And for Damon Albarn, to add to the darkness, was the death of his close friend and long-time collaborator, the drummer Tony Allen.

In the months leading up to the pandemic, Albarn was working on songs for a new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, a project inspired by Iceland, where he has a house overlooking a black sand beach, the sea and the mountains. It’s a long way from the greyhound-racing venue in London that featured on the artwork for Blur’s 1994 Parklife album; a long way geographically and musically too – the new work is quiet, delicate, reflective. This has become a hallmark of Albarn’s career – musical shifts and intriguing detours.

Under the huge curved roof of Manchester Central, a former railway station, and hosted by the Manchester international festival, Albarn mixes songs from the new album (due out in November) with interpretations of material from his back catalogue. The audience is so ready to experience live music again; if we’d been presented with small children wearing Incredible Hulk costumes trying to tune a battered Victorian piano, they’d probably have got an encore. Two-thirds of the seats are occupied, the others empty to allow for social distancing; the audience is scattered around the venue like a sea of buoys (and girls).

The gig opens gently, with new songs. Albarn, at the piano, seems half-tempted to restart second song The Cormorant but relaxes into the mooching rhythm. There are delicate textures reminiscent of those he brought to the Mali Music album, and in the lyrics some poignant images of an uncharted cruise ship far out in the distance, hosting the last party on Earth.

Even with nine musicians alongside him – including a quartet of string musicians – there’s nowhere for weakness to hide. Albarn wonders aloud whether his voice is a little flat. Near the end of the show he prefaces Polaris by asking the audience to help him find the note. It’s an E, he says, which doesn’t get the laugh it might have.

Royal Morning Blue is a standout track on the forthcoming album but cries out for a vocal that soars, Billy Mackenzie-style. As the set widens beyond the new numbers, Massive Attack’s Saturday Come Slow features one of Albarn’s strongest vocals of the night. Bass player Seye Adelekan and drummer Femi Koleso keep the songs neatly tied down, conquering everything from barely perceptible rhythms to Two Tone jigs. Mike Smith threads a lovely saxophone melody through Go Back. Gorillaz track El Mañana ups the tempo, riding a swooping bass line, bristling with dynamism, and gets one of the biggest cheers of the evening.

Introducing The Great Fire, Albarn, in uncharacteristically chatty mood all evening, tells a Michael Gove story; seeing Gove out and about, Albarn yelled “xenophobe”. All he was after was the sweet release of a shout in the street, but Gove stopped and engaged him in conversation about Brexit.

Albarn has a way about him: downbeat, untidy. He slightly ineptly tells another anecdote; he spies Blur drummer Dave Rowntree near the front, says hello to him. “I’ve lost it,” he says with a laugh. “I’m digressing unacceptably.” But he’s trimmed the mullet that scared viewers of his online set at Glastonbury; as far as I can judge, he retains swoon-worthiness.

By the end of a five-song encore, the set has stretched to just over two hours. Out of Time, the brooding, late-period Blur track, with its gentle bass line, violin and cello, fits well with the wistful songs on the new album, as does its theme of alienation in a world spinning away from love, separation, loneliness.

Tonight, Albarn’s performance undercuts some of the deeply melancholic material. He chuckles, enjoys the moment, loves being on stage. And we’re glad to be together, grateful to be able to celebrate some kind of survival – of us, live music and the communal spirit it engenders. Standing ovation. Spirits lifted.

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