Of the many strings that the prolific musician Damon Albarn has to his bow – which stretch from Gorillaz and Blur to The Good, The Bad & The Queen to Africa Express – arguably he is least well-known for his solo work. He has released two albums under his own name, Everyday Robots in 2014 and The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, out this summer.
To promote this new album, he played two nights at Manchester Central’s cavernous space as part of the Manchester International Festival. The gigs mark Albarn’s return to MIF, after his adaptation of the classic Chinese fable Journey to the West, created in collaboration with Jamie Hewlett and director Chen Shi-Zheng, opened the first ever festival in 2007.
For these solo shows Albarn was in a more contemplative mood and managed to give the vast performance space – which this time last year was reformatted to be a Nightingale Hospital – a surprising intimacy. The vibe was a of melancholic lounge singer playing on a self-styled cruise ship travelling into “uncharted waters” – a vision inspired by Albarn looking out at a cruise ship during a lockdown stint by the sea in Devon.
The songs told tales of regret, loss and love, yet Albarn cut through their apparent gloom by also making cheerful if shambolic conversation with the audience, which stretched from wincing at his own singing abilities (which did veer towards the flat at times) to anecdotes about Cliff Richard and Elton John and his thoughts on Fela Kuti drummer and regular collaborator Tony Allen, who died last year. The biggest cheer was reserved for the revelation that he’d shouted “xenophobe” at Michael Gove when he chanced upon him out jogging in west London, though this led to more thoughtful ruminations on Brexit and Gove’s apparent lack of awareness of the “Pandora’s Box” he had opened with the referendum crusade.
Back with the music, after enjoying some of his newer songs, the audience were rewarded with some golden oldies from Albarn’s back catalogue, with Blur’s 'Out of Time' and 'This is a Low' sounding suitably bittersweet. Both Albarn and his band were clearly happy to be back at a gig, and judging by the rapturous cheers from the crowd, they were too.