The View From Here
Damon Albarn, Great Hall, Queen Mary University, London, May 1, 2014
Damon Albarn is a man of many guises, and it seems he also has an outfit to match them all. In his role as Blur frontman, he consistently favoured Fred Perry tops and oxblood Doc Martens. As a member of Gorillaz, he even went as far as to adopt an entirely different persona – the spiky-haired animated singer 2D (real name: Stuart Tusspot). For The Good, The Bad And The Queen, he favoured a Two Tone-style dark suit and a low top hat, and for his reimagining of the life of Elizabethan mystic John Dee, he went as far as to grow a beard. Tonight, he arrives on stage wearing a simple suit and tie and a pair of desert boots.
This is Damon stripped bare, we must believe, as he embarks on a journey through his past on his solo debut, Everyday Robots (what happened to 2003’s Democrazy?). Though many of his songs have been laced with personal experiences, this is the first time Albarn has mined his past so candidly. Appropriately enough, he has chosen to debut Everyday Robots in venues that have significance to his own story. The previous night, Albarn played the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley, just over a mile away from Goldsmith’s College where he met the other members of Blur. Tonight’s venue, the Great Hall at Queen Mary University, is not only close to Mile End Stadium, the site of Blur’s triumphant (if wet) gig during Britpop’s high summer, but, Albarn tells us from the stage, he was born in the nearby Royal London Hospital up the road at Whitechapel.
Arguably, such rich personal resonances add an additional level of detail to what is, for a performer as charismatic Albarn, a conspicuously low-key show. Albarn has always been good at songs that privilege a kind of minor chord melancholia, and tonight he weaves together songs from throughout his illustrious catalogue that share that sensibility. In many respects, Everyday Robots feels closest musically to The Good, The Bad And The Queen project: the sound is spacious, dubby and the tone wistful (Blur's "Death Of A Party" is another reference). By assembling these songs from his different bands together in one set, it’s possible to discern recurring patterns and themes in Albarn’s best music. Many of these songs take place towards the end of the day – “twilight”, “sunset”, “Friday night”. The Everyday Robots themselves are “in the process of going home”, evening beckons. Elsewhere, weather can be a concern – “there’s a low in the high forties” – while often water is involved: “Up the Thames to find a taxi rank” or “A ship across the Estuary”, "Oily Water", “Hollow Ponds” and “Heavy Seas”. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the actual weather conditions outside Queen Mary University are suitably grey and drizzly.
To help bring all this to life are Albarn’s newest musical cohorts, the Heavy Seas, who comprise four other members, and a string quartet. Albarn is keen to make clear that this is a group effort, rather than Albarn plus a backing band; an endearingly self-effacing sentiment, but it’s still Albarn’s name alone on the ticket rather. That said, while these musicians may not carry the impressive musical weight of Blur, the ex-Clash or Afrobeat legends he worked with in The Good, The Bad And The Queen or many of the storied guests on Gorillaz, they are nonetheless more than capable of carrying the night. As sharply dressed as Albarn, they are relaxed, sympathetic players. It is possible to lose yourself watching bassist Seye, string-bean thin in his faintly oversized suit and hat, as he sways, crouches, or bounces round the stage. But then, you’d miss watching the equally animated drummer Pauli Stanley-McKenzie, who plays much of the set standing up, leaning over his kit, and swaying from side to side in time to the rhythm. Both Stanley-McKenzie and guitarist Jeff Wootton featured in Gorillaz, while keyboard player Mike Smith is a long standing live collaborator of Albarn’s in all his various guises. Albarn presides over the proceedings, alternating between standing at the microphone or sitting at the piano; occasionally, he straps on a guitar.
Although the set is subdued, that’s not to say it’s not without fiery moments. “Kids With Guns” builds into a messy, noisy climax, “Kingdom Of Doom” morphs into what sounds like a ferocious take on “London Calling”, while “Beetlebum” b-side “All Your Life” rekindles the demented hurdy gurdy spirit of Blur at their most forceful and the appearance of Kano for a swaggering version of “Clint Eastwood” raises the temperature considerably. Even “Mr Tembo” – a song I must confess I can’t bear on the album – works well live, augmented by a choir, and successfully recast as a clapalong for the audience.
There are some unscripted digressions, too. Albarn (and Smith) have a recurring conversation with a friend in the audience called Nelson (who might be Nelson de Freitas, who provided the 'spoken voice' for 2D). Elsewhere, when Albarn starts talking about the involvement of Brian Eno on Everyday Robots' track "You And Me", the audience pick up a football-style chant of "Eno! Eno!" which Albarn ends up joining in. But, perhaps inevitably, the night’s stand out moments are simple, mesmerising versions of “Out Of Time” and “This Is A Low” performed by Albarn at the piano. Having seen Albarn live for well over 20 years now in his various guises, there's something deeply satisfying about watching him present songs from all aspects of his career together in one set. Let's hope there's more to come like this.
Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner.
Damon Albarn played:
Lonely Press Play
Tomorrow Comes Today
Kids With Guns
You And Me
Kingdom Of Doom
Out Of Time
All Your Life
This Is A Low
Photo credit: Nicky J. Sims/Redferns
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