Photography & Review: Glenn Rossington.
On a bitterly cold early December evening, the HMV Empire is tonight hosting a very special intimate gig by the Blur, Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen and Africa Express head honcho, Damon Albarn. The gig forms part of an intimate UK Tour that sees him playing a piano backed by a String Quartet.
It is unfortunate that this gig itself is delayed by 35 minutes, but nonetheless, proves only a tiny hiccup in what is an exceptional evening. As the lights dip, there is a euphoric cheer as the Quartet arrive first, followed by Albarn strolling casually to the front, giving the audience a beaming smile and two thumbs up in appreciation.
The first half of the set is entirely composed of tracks from his stunning new album ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’. This is going to be a celebration in a novel attentive way. The title track opens proceedings and is a humble Melodic calling to the beauty Albarn experienced in Iceland. ‘The Cormorant’ and ‘Royal Morning Blue’ follow onwards extruding an air of beauty throughout the venue.
In between the tracks, Damon says very little to the near capacity crowd and instead chooses to perform the album tracks in a continuous flow, very much like the stream as dictated in the album title.
As his voice echoes around the venue, each track is framed perfectly by the melodies of the strings and the tinkling of the Yamaha Ivories. There are no backing vocals or effects, it is performed very raw and emotionally.
‘Daft Wader’, ‘Darkness to Light’ and ‘The Tower of Montevideo’ showcase more of the album and its’ intricate delicacies. The final two tracks of the “album set” are flawless. Albarn has relaxed in to his performance and his voice comes across more powerfully and again, delicate. Something we are not overly familiar with for die hard Blur/Gorillaz fanatics. ‘Polaris’ is wonderful, but it is ‘Particles’ that steals the show. The gorgeous final track on the album is just incredible, almost feeling gospel-like. By the end, the audience are also warmed up to in the intricate delicateness of the evening and if it wasn’t a standing show, you would imagine there would be a standing ovation.
Damon now greets the audience. Now the showcase is over, it’s time to treat us to a few “older” songs. The Cellist strikes a few deep notes before the rhythmic stabbing gives way to a performance of Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’ which gives way to some cheers from various members of the crowd. It is a shorter version naturally, but stripped of the shine, it becomes a powerful rendition that certainly delighted tonights’ crowd.
We then get a wonderful surprise in a rendition of Blur’s 2012 comeback single ‘Under The Westway’ followed by 2015’s ‘My Terracotta Heart’. Both not overly familiar with the fans of the Greatest Hits, but wonderful additions to the set.
Ahead of the next song, Damon addresses the crowd declaring that he has not been back to Coventry since 1993 and apologises. He then declares “I’ve got a couple more songs for you and then I’ll bugger off”.
‘For Tomorrow’ comes next and sees the first big singalong of the night with the “La-la-la-la-la” in the chorus. Albarn then reverts back to the gospel-like feel with a beautiful version of ‘Tender’ that sees him lead the audience through the “Oh my baby” refrain. The main surprise tonight comes in the form of a quirky and almost shanty-esque rendition of ‘Girls and Boys’. Various members of the crowd begin to dance and even have a little mosh, an odd spectacle tonight.
The final track, complete with the live strings, is incredible. A beautiful version of ‘The Universal’, again causing a huge singalong, delighting the now lively audience. As the song comes to it’s conclusion, Damon again thanks us for coming out and promises not to leave it thirty years before he returns to the city. The String Quartet and Albarn bow to the audience and Damon leaves the stage high-fiving and shaking hands with the front rows to cheers fro the excited attendees.
Covid and Omnicron allowing, Damon Albarn has a few remaining dates in 2021 and will see the first part of 2022 taking this piano show across Europe. His new album ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’ is out now.