My first gig in eighteen months may have been in a socially distanced seated event, but blimey did it feel great to watch a live performance again. Every two years Manchester International Festival rolls around, and brings with it a feast of unique gigs, but none of us could have predicted just how unusual these two gigs by Damon Albarn were going to be. With seating spaced apart, and a limited crowd due to the current rules, it was a big space to fill, but from the moment Albarn took to the stage it was clear just how much us, and him, had missed live music. 

With a new solo album ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’ due later this year, we were treated to new tunes including ‘The Cormorant‘ and ‘Darkness Into Light’ both of which  sounded like a lockdown well spent, with soothing melodies, pounding basslines and rhythms that groove along defying you not to dance along (in a seated way, at least for tonight!)

When not seated at the piano, Damon danced and swaggered around the stage in his inimitable style, through a set that swerved the obvious song choices, opting instead for tracks such as the brilliant ‘Nineteen Seventeen‘ and ‘The Great Fire’ from The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s ‘Merrie Land’ album, as well as the groove laden majesty of ‘Three Changes’ and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Nature Springs’ from their self-titled debut. Tunes from Blur’s ‘Think Tank’ and ‘Magic Whip’ albums got an airing too, with ‘Good Song’ and ‘Ghost Ship’ both sounding exuberant, reworked by Albarn’s backing band, including a string section for extra vibrancy.

Gorillaz tunes ‘El Manana’ and ‘On Melancholy Hill’ were also revitalised by Albarn sounding punchy as ever, as did the gorgeously eerie ‘Lonely, Press Play’ from Albarn’s previous solo release ‘Everyday Robots’. Damon paid tribute to the late great drummer Tony Allen who Damon worked with extensively in The Good The Bad & The Queen amongst other projects, before delivering a cracking version of ‘Go Back’ from Allen’s album ‘Film Of Life’.

Lockdown and the past year’s events have done strange things to us all, with Damon even apologising for talking too much in between songs, “This is what lockdown has done to me!”  He always was a likeable character, but now he seems even more the down to earth, like your mate from the pub, but one who’s telling tales of accosting politician Michael Gove in the street whilst out jogging, then feeling a bit sheepish about it, but carrying on regardless to get his point across regarding the state of the country. He also seems amazed that he has been recording with Elton John, then the week before it was Barrington Levy, “that’s just my life now!” he laughs in a non-bragging way, rather in disbelief, as though he can barely comprehend it himself.  Other tales involved preferring to watch the England final on telly instead of being there and also the social awkwardness he avoided by doing so (usually he meets other famous types at these events, and then doesn’t really know what to do or say),  it all adds to the Albarn charm.

Blur classic ‘Out of Time’ never sounded so poignant, whereas the brilliant ‘Polaris’ from the forthcoming new album, involved some audience participation in the form of us doing vocal exercises along with Albarn, then after he’d managed to get the opening note sorted, we were off, the amassed yet subtle audience backing note ringing out under the main chorus.

Blur drummer Dave Rowntree was in the audience, “Alright Dave! Makes a change watching me from out there” joked Albarn. Finishing with one of Blur’s best songs ‘‘This Is A Low’ Damon starts a bit off key and laughingly stops proceedings “I fucked that up! Dave I’m really sorry mate” he apologises, before launching into an epic version of the classic Blur tune, with Damon’s soaring vocals complemented by the string section and subtle backing from the rest of the band. 

I really wasn’t too sure what to expect at a socially distant gig, in a huge venue, yet drawing from his vast array of tunes, both old and new, combined with his storytelling (some hilarious anecdotes and poignant ones) in between songs, it felt like the most intimate stadium gig you could ever witness. A uniquely brilliant and memorable gig by one of the best songwriters around. 

Photo Credit: Priti Shikotra, courtesy of Manchester International Festival.

Polaris Video

From the early days of creating handmade zines, in a DIY paper and glue style, interviewing bands around town, then pestering Piccadilly Records to sell them, to writing for various independent mags such as Chimp and Ablaze, writing about the music I love is still a great passion. After testing the music industry waters in London with stints at various labels, being back in my hometown again, writing about this city’s vibrant music scene is as exciting as ever. All time favourite bands include Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Patti Smith although anything from electro to folk via blues and pysch rock will also do nicely too. A great album, is simply a great album, regardless of whatever musical cage you put it in.