Blur and Gorillaz frontman presides over a low-key night with a thick vein of melancholy, but is still a crowd-pleaser at heart
In recent weeks, Damon Albarn has been talking to the press about a phase he went through in the 90s when he experimented with something that was dangerously fashionable at the time and left him unscathed while traumatising many of his less fortunate peers. But enough about Britpop; he also confessed to taking heroin.
Albarn hasn't always been so candid about his past, but it's very much on his mind right now. His debut solo album, Everyday Robots, is so rich in personal psychogeography that it must be the first record to extract poignancy from Thurrock Lakeside shopping centre. So it's telling that the venue for his first show with his new backing band, a handsome ballroom decked with chandeliers, lanterns and red upholstery, is not far from Goldsmith's College, where the singer met the other members of Blur a long time ago.
Everyday Robots is relentlessly low-key, bringing to the fore the vein of melancholy that runs through Blur, Gorillaz and all his other varied projects, and a straight reading of it would make for a subdued evening. But Albarn, who had to be cajoled into making a record under his own name in his mid 40s, has always liked company, and this is very much a Heavy Seas show rather than a solo one. If the sharp suits and biracial lineup recall the Specials, so too does the emphasis on bass and motion. Some new songs sound as heavy as dub reggae; others are prone to suddenly noisy climaxes. At several points the drummer plays as if trying to beat to death multiple assailants.
A crowd-pleaser at heart, Albarn promises that tonight will visit different periods from his episodic career. "I hope you like it. The people in the audience who made this music, I hope you like it too," he says, alluding to various former bandmates present. Gorillaz' Kids with Guns is taut and ferocious; The Good, the Bad and the Queen's Kingdom of Doom is scrawled with noise. He leaves Blur till later, performing spellbinding miniatures of Out of Time and This Is a Low alone at the piano.
You're struck less by the surface diversity than by the recurring lyrical and melodic tropes that tie his myriad endeavours together. In light of the recent media handwringing over Britpop's contentious legacy, the tart reflections on British identity feel most relevant: the "stroppy little island of mixed-up people" on the nauseously tense Three Changes, or Albarn's cry of "Oh England my love you lost me, made me look like a fool" in a rare and thrilling performance of Bowiesque Blur B-side All Your Life.
Moving through so many incarnations has kept Albarn limber. He may have headlined Glastonbury with two different bands, but there's none of the awkwardness that you often find when big names temporarily downsize to small venues. He's a cheerfully humble presence, although there is still enough leaping and swaggering in this humid room to make him regret his wardrobe choices. "I'm going to have to go back to T-shirts when I'm on stage," he says halfway through, all sweaty and rueful.
During the encore the stage gets busier, with rapper Kano leading a thrillingly intense run through Clint Eastwood and a small gospel choir enriching two new songs. When Albarn thanks the audience, he says, "We're the Heavy Seas," suggesting that he might have found a band strong enough to outlive this album. On the basis of this first outing, the prospect of them investigating and refreshing other parts of Albarn's vast and disparate back catalogue is very tempting indeed.
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