Albarn is one of the few 90s names who managed a clever transition from the effervescent crackle of brit-pop to a deeper exploration of the possibilities of modern music. Over the decades, since those shiny days, he has popped up with various surprising solo works, re-inventions and collaborations. He then found a whole new mainstream audience via Gorillaz – a band whose weird animated presence and hooky beats undercuts some cunning studio tech and smart song writing.
Tonight’s show is a chance to spotlight Damon’s complex new album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows to a more refined, seated audience. At least that may have been the theory until the impatient front man decides to create a bit of atmosphere by coaxing the crowd from their polite, socially-distanced chairs to the front floor area, where they excitedly flock around the stage in search of a proper mosh pit.
The urge to get mad for it soon evaporates though, as the opening tune becomes a slowly evolving lament, driven by an expressive string quartet and lush, overstrung piano. It swirls and floats amid waves of pastoral folk and plaintive melancholy. A beautiful song perfectly suited to the International Festival but maybe a bit too muted for potential stage divers.
Albarn’s vocal delivery has matured over the decades. His voice has developed a rich, croaky depth on the bottom end while his top notes still create that sparkle of whimsy familiar to Blur fans. The new compositions are complex, textured and lyrically punchy, with chord structures and arrangements that invoke the spirit of early Bowie with a whiff of Neu! and an occasional bucolic nod to the Incredible String Band.
We are at least four songs in before some serious beats burst forth from the crisp PA prompting our standing audience to get some proper grooving on. It’s a carefully constructed set, apparently inspired by the landscapes and culture of Iceland, building from ruminative, lilting soundscapes to deep, dark bouncing slabs of electronica and thrashing guitars. Albarn still has the nose for a good hook though, and the occasional pop-out chorus sends the crowd into delighted yelps. Even though this is their first taste of the new works (the album isn’t released till November) they are plainly loving the performance.
Eventually Damon’s stagecraft instincts kick in and he steps out from behind the piano to get some rapport going with an enthusiastic throng who are desperate for a lively night out. Asking the crowd what they’d like to hear next, one cheeky voice shouts ‘Wonderwall’. Damon giggles along in cheerful spirit. ‘I always knew you preferred that other lot,’ he teases. ‘But I just got on with my life.’ This raises a raucous cheer.
Unlike his previous contemporaries, Albarn makes no apologies for following some diverse and eclectic musical choices. Judging by tonight’s confident and energetic performance he has many more surprises to come.
With grateful thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.