photo by Priti Shikotra
Manchester International Festival
No one reading this needs reminding of the wonderful ebb and flow adventure of live music and, despite already being to a few gigs in this difficult year, it’s amazing to witness something truly special these two evenings.
It’s been a long and fascinating journey for Damon Albarn – the pop star who finds it impossible to rest on his laurels. Every now and then he still kicks the carcass of Blur to find life in its Britpop classic, or he hits a jackpot with the virtual reality of the brilliantly cartoonish Gorillaz – a modern pop group in 2D that fuses hip hop to pop to futurez and then there were the diversions into African influenced music, solo adventures and now this – an evening of introspective, haunting beauty that is his new album The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows presented at Manchester International Festival with aa set that also includes key moments from his other incarnations. The album with its title taken from a John Clare poem Love and Memory explores themes of fragility, emergence and rebirth and was created in the isolation of these pandemic times – it’s a haunting and hypnotic work and on first listen in the live arena it’s already captivating with its introverted moods decorated by precious hooks and musical textures and polyatomic polyrhythmic adventures that truly pull you in.
Damon Albarn is playing his new work in full at the Manchester International Festival with a concert at the underused but stunning Gmex venue- the former huge railway station has been restored and its giant whalebone corset arches and brickwork are the perfect backdrop to the glimmering beauty of Albarn’s current incarnation – it’s like we have been swallowed up by a giant whale and immersed in Albarn’s oceanic imagination of salt-stained visions and lonesome cruise ships.
Albarn himself is no stranger to the Manchester International Festival having presented his world premiere of his opera, Monkey : Journey To The West, which opened the very first Festival in 2007. But this is something quite different – a shimmering and haunting work that captures the shadows of the half reality of the pandemic life without directly referring to it. The music drags you in with its bobbing dark sea presence and its inclement beauty plays with all the possibilities of the band’s line up of two drummers, a spooky string section, Simon Tong’s inventive and captivating guitar brilliance, haunting fairground keyboards and a brilliant bass delivered by Seye Adelekan whilst skanking along with his dub bottom end bass lines that spine the songs with their playful brilliance.
Albarn’s restless creative impatience has seen him shapeshift into another guise tonight with a set of introverted glimmering beauty that is driven by his soul searching journey that was sparked by the pandemic. Damon is hunched over his keyboard delivering the songs that simmer and build with added strings, soundscapes as the set builds up in layers driven by Femi Koleso on drums that adds the rhythmic genius of his mentor the late and great Tony Allen to the songs as the music gradually builds to climax with subtle and ongoing shifts.
It’s a long way from the cheeky exuberance of his Blur days and its closest companion is his 2014 Everday Robots solo album with its exploration of Albarn’s sensitive sensual soul as he tries to explain in between the songs in those contrastingly amusing seemingly stoned rambles and shaggy dog stories ‘I can’t stop talking,’; he giggles ‘it must be after the solitude of the pandemic…’
Songs like Polaris are typical of this with its co-writer, the former Verve man, Simon Tong adding a typically hypnotic and haunting brilliant guitar line to the song that unfurls gradually into a climactic whole – its a mesmerising aural adventure and full of beauty and reflective lyrics and even finds time to stretch out for a prog interlude – it’s an adventurous trip and one that dares to embrace a multitude of ideas and emotions. The set is full of curveballs and surprises there is a nod to prime influence – Massive Attack – who also played one of the greatest live shows I’ve ever seen at the Manchester International festival a few years ago with a cover of their Saturday Come Slow, a brace of The Good The Bad and The Queen songs – Nineteen Seventeen, the Great Fire, The Poison Tree, Three Changes and some reworked Gorillaz numbers like On Melancholy Hill, Hong Kong and El Manana before the set ends with a hilarious fluffed take on Blur’s This Is A Low that sees Damon apologising to Dave Rowntree who is sat in the front row.
The pandemic has changed us all – maybe in ways, we have not even noticed. For Damon Albarn it was an inward journey as he sat it out in Iceland – an enthralling nation whose stark geographical backdrop was also an influence. Another pyscho geography influence was his other retreat in Devon, sat on a beach looking at a ghost cruise ship sat in the sea. The ship was parked there – a victim of Covid – unwanted and left bobbing on the dark waves waiting for the world to return and a perfect metaphor for these strange times. Fascinated by its creaking hulk, Damon imagined a band playing on the ship – a spectral ghost group and created a soundtrack for them in his head that sparked off the album.
A beautiful introspective soundscape – the songs are full of the sensual mysteries of the soul and beautifully sang by Albarn who has spent the last 18 months working out every nuance in his voice and letting it really play with the fragile melodic wonderland of this music. Ever restless, he has decorated these quicksilver melodies with an array of musical ideas that play with the soundtrack spook of the string section to the haunted fairground keyboards that give a nod to second album Specials who he credits in one of his captivating between-song rambles that also reference the pandemic, the fallout of the Euros with an optimistic reference to the anti-racist backlash (‘we are a decent people’ he rightfully claims of his fellow English on the same evening as thousands of post-it notes were stuck on the nearby Marcus Rashford mural in Withington covering up the racist graffiti and supporting the player as the real quiet England voiced its disgust at the racist jibes from loud minority) and a filthy and funny story about Cliff Richard amongst a myriad of ad-libs.
The rhythm section is immaculate – Femi is a credit to his teacher Tony Allen and toys with he afro beat rhythmic possibilities and Simon Tong’s guitar is ever wonderful – adding inflexions and strange texture and sounds that help to dd to the music’s off-kilter alchemical magic – he truly is a gifted player – understated and using the guitar as an aural paintbrush and never lazily hammering away.
The audience is socially distanced and sat down and for once that is perfect – a music like this draws you in, you are the spectator not the participator – you need to be drawn into this world and become the same spectator s Albarn himself was as he peered at the ghost ship and imagined up the band at the end of time as his wandering mind peered through the portholes.
That ghost band is now a reality as it creaks and shapeshifts in all its spectral glory – this was a wonderful gig and a very big hint of a classic album coming our way in the autumn.