“It’s such a privilege being back on a stage,” says Damon Albarn, half way through tonight’s show. “And extra super lovely for me, being back in Manchester. At the festival.” Indeed, Damon Albarn has become something akin to the spiritual heart of the Manchester International Festival, seemingly ever willing to be part of it.
The festival pivots on the notion of debuting new material and tonight’s show is built partly around Albarn’s new solo album The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, due to be released in November. As the band steps onto the stage, together, with seemingly with no priority of order, Albarn asks for the lights to be dimmed as the opening track of his set, is also the opening of this new album, and is set before dawn. November’s release was originally designed to be an orchestral collection inspired by the Icelandic landscape, where Albarn has a home and a small share in a Reykjavik bar where I once managed to find myself. Indeed the first three tracks of the set – ‘The Nearer the Fountain’, ‘The Cormorant’ and ‘Royal Morning Blue’ are the first three tracks from that new album. Albarn’s second solo release, after 2014’s Everyday Robots, then supplies the next track, ‘Lonely Press Play’, the only track from that album to get an airing tonight.
What’s interesting about Damon Albarn as a solo proposition is that after the indie-pop buzz of Blur, the upbeat funk energy of Gorillaz and even the strange fairground folksiness of The Good, The Bad and The Queen, on his own he really is a melancholy soul, with a slow-tempo, almost maudlin reflective feel to much of the music. That’s not to dispute its beauty, in places… more that, left to his own devices, thoughts – perhaps inevitably – turn inwards. That is certainly true of the new music, reflecting – as Albarn himself admits – his own dark journey in making the album, in the context of the time we have all had. The early stages of the performance, then, seem to come from that experience – eerie, jarring unsettling, discordant, fractured. Certainly towards the beginning of the set everyone is seated, including Albarn and the guitarist, the grooving left to the standing bass player, his bass low slung in the style of Peter Hook. Of course this may also be down to the world we are still in, a world that has asked Albarn not to “incite standing up”, the industrial bat-cave aesthetics of Manchester Central particularly cavernous tonight. At one point Albarn comments that if they only could lower the roof, it would be just like the Blackpool North Pier Theatre.
An issue with debuting new music is that, by its very nature, it has not yet had a chance to settle in the public consciousness. But as the set warms up, the music sparks into life in this live context – Albarn on keyboards (adorned with Pac Man stickers), backed by a full band, including a four piece string section and a keyboard player who also doubles up on sax. Now with a cornucopia of material to choose from, Albarn works through Blur tracks like ‘Good Song’, ‘Ghost Ship’ and ‘Out of Time’ with Gorillaz songs ‘El Manana’, ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘On Melancholy Hill’, with cuts from both The Good, The Bad and The Queen albums, including ‘The Poison Tree’ and ‘Three Changes’. Not many artists can claim to draw material from four different iterations of production.
As we move through the evening, Albarn becomes more animated, swapping positions seated at the keyboards and standing stage front, at times playing the melodica, at others roaming and romancing the stage, engaging with the seated crowd as much as is possible, his glasses sometimes on, sometimes off, depending (as he admits) on whether it’s a new one, or an old one that might require some nudging. His rather disturbing mullet is also a thing of the past, it seems, and while he praises the sartorial efforts of the Mancunian crowd, he still looks in decent nick: bearded, in a short sleeve shirt and baggy slacks. At one point he holds his hips, like Morrissey, at another he almost looks on the verge of a Blur-style pogo dance.
There are indie and soul influences through the set – sometimes within the same track – with sax, strings and the wah wah guitars playing off against a taut percussion section. “It’s G-Mex,” says Albarn, “but we see it as a jazz club,” suggesting his band might be a lounge band on a cruise ship, as she sits on the stage to tell stories of working with Elton John. And then he’s back up, shaking his fists in the air, in a “we’re winning” gesture. “What a joy to be back,” he says, adding, on the Euros final the previous evening, “last night was problematic if you were doing your first gig in two years the next day.” He makes some comments about the deplorable racist attacks that followed England’s defeat, linking it squarely to Brexit, a preoccupation of the second TGTBATQ album Merrie Land.
The eclectic and ubiquitous nature of Damon Albarn’s productions is perfectly encapsulated in the encore… Gorillaz into Blur into The Good, The Bad and The Queen, into a track from the new album. For the final track, however, Albarn digs back into the Blur back catalogue, and the gorgeous ‘This Is A Low’. A perhaps ironic note, on which to end a high spirited evening.
The Nearer The Fountain
Royal Morning Blue
Lonely Press Play
Saturday Come Slow
The Great Fire
The Tower of Montevideo
The Poison Tree
Darkness to Light
On Melancholy Hill
Out of Time
This is a Low
Damon Albarn was at Manchester Central on 12 July as part of the Manchester International Festival 2021.