Damon Albarn works his magic at Manchester International Festival

Musical polymath Damon Albarn does not need to be introduced. Britpop legend, master producer, world music connoisseur and co-founder of the most successful virtual band of all time is never afraid of experimentation.

For two consecutive July evenings (July 12 and 13), Albarn takes Manchester International Festival attendees on a musical journey to Manchester Central, a former railway station turned into a concert hall. Later in the shoot, he jokes, “You’re all on an un-chartered cruise ship.” His anecdotes and inter-song jokes are unmatched by any other live musician. From encounters with Elton John and Alan Carr to political commentary and a tough stance against xenophobia, Albarn manages to entertain and simultaneously bring issues of personal importance to the fore.

A deep dive into Damon’s discography

It opens with the eponymous single taken from the next The closer the fountain, the purer the stream. This piece is particularly inspired by the tranquil landscapes of Iceland, of which Albarn also holds citizenship. Damon launches a handful of unreleased tracks from the next album alternating between his piano and his faithful melodica. When he launched into ‘Lonely Press Play’ in 2014, he danced to his groovy intro. His gold tooth sparkles as he smiles, clearly enjoying being in the moment.

Albarn delves deeply into a discography that spans a little over 3 decades. It offers audiences a welcome mix of solo material, both new and old. Plus, a selection of hits from Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen. It is supported by a string quartet that weaves haunting melodies into newer material and reworks older pieces.

Blur’s “Ghost Ship” and “Good Song” feature in the set, as well as a cover of Massive Attack’s “Saturday Come Slow”. Albarn also takes the opportunity to pay tribute to the genius of Tony Allen. Legendary musician Afrobeat and frequent collaborator of Albarn’s sadly passed away in 2020. He suggests that his charismatic drummer Femi Koleoso has the talent to keep Allen’s legacy alive.

Image: Damon Albarn by Linda Brownlee via Press

Celebrity encounters and political statements

Never one to shy away from political commentary, Albarn tackles the subject of multiculturalism in the UK. He recalls listening to ska legends The Selector and Madness in school in the ’80s, citing their influence. When he tells the audience that he once shouted “xenophobic” at Conservative MP Michael Gove, he is greeted with cheers and applause. Albarn says his anger at Gove was sparked by “unacceptable xenophobia” resulting from “the Pandora’s box of Brexit”.

This leads to a back-to-back poignant performance from Gorillaz ‘El Manana’ and ‘Hong Kong’. The latter, being a B-side, is a much appreciated rarity, underpinned by a scintillating acoustic guitar melody and enhanced by the magnificent string quartet. It also features one of Albarn’s strongest vocal performances and audiences are delighted to see Albarn achieve a falsetto.

An exhilarating reminder

After a brief hiatus, Albarn and his band return to the stage for a rousing encore that begins with a delicate overhaul of ‘On Melancholy Hill’. Then follows the unmistakable punchy crackle of Blur’s “Out of Time”, casting a spell on Central Hall. Albarn guides the participants in a sort of meditative vocal warm-up before the start of the haunting beauty of “Polaris”. It is a joy to hear hundreds of voices singing “om” to unity, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere of the evening.

Albarn returns to his piano for the closest “This is a Low”, but is endearingly mistaken and starts the piece over. He apologizes to Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, who is seated in the middle of the crowd, before resuming a seamless, stripped-down rendition of the Parklife classic. As the evening draws to a close and the enthralled spectators exit, a resonating wave of serenity and optimism unfolds with tidal force.

Damon Albarn to release second solo album The closer the fountain, the purer the stream via Transgressive Records on 12e November 2021. You can pre-order and pre-record the album here.

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Darcy J. Skinner

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