Sunday, 15 June 2014

GIG REVIEW: Damon Albarn - Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, 31/05/2013

Back in April, Damon Albarn announced a pair of intimate warm up gigs in Bristol and Portsmouth. Tickets for the show at Bristol's Trinity Centre sold out before people could even enter their credit card details, and the 400 tickets for tonight's date in Portsmouth were fought over by more than 100,000 fans. So I feel very lucky to be here with 399 other people to spend a night in the company of the legend himself and his band The Heavy Seas. It's not the first time I've seen Damon of course, since I've had the pleasure of watching Blur play the greatest gig I've ever been to. A lot of people who are huge fans of particular groups wouldn't be too bothered about seeing the frontman play a solo gig if they'd already seen the band in question. But this is no second rate substitute for the full Blur show, it's something completely different altogether. It's very much a celebration of the man and the creative versatility that has allowed him to stay fresh and relevant throughout his sparkling career, jumping from one project to the next with enthusiastic ease.

It's also an opportunity to give a spotlight to the songs from his wonderful new solo LP 'Everyday Robots', which is played in full tonight, apart from the two short segues. Beginning with the thick, slow paced groove of 'Lonely Press Play', there's a great deal of soul in Albarn's performance, and a lot more energy than I expected from these solo gigs. After the beautifully melancholic 'Everyday Robots' creates an alluringly sad, distant atmosphere, the melodica comes out for a heavy, vigorous rendition of Gorillaz classic 'Tomorrow Comes Today'. 'Hostiles' shows that The Heavy Seas have their dynamics sussed out well, applying a soft, intricate backdrop to Damon's haunting lead part, while the vibrant dub of 'Slow Country' and dirty, nagging hooks of 'Kids With Guns' take the energy and mood up a notch. It's here that he switches to the role of idol and entertainer, lapping up the adoration as he moves forward and sings to the people at the front. The chaotic mayday vibe of The Good, The Bad And The Queen's 'Three Changes' is recreated brilliantly, before 'The Selfish Giant' is delicately rearranged for acoustic guitar, providing a hushed, genuinely touching moment, despite its perfection being interrupted near the start by a creaking door.

There's humour too, and Damon seems moved by the warmth of the intimate setting and the devotees assembled to come and see him play. But he's not so happy with everyone. With the feeling an argument may have been on the verge of breaking out, it seems that one of the stage crew has fucked up and put the previous night's setlist out on stage. "Yes, I know it SAYS Portsmouth, but this is last night's" complains Damon when the crew member points to the sheet of paper. The solemn tales of heroin use and stripped back gloom of 'You And Me' opens up during its second half, blossoming into a sleek, soulfully sincere beauty, and after it comes the moody melancholia of 'Photographs (You Are Taking Now)', a song that reflects on whether we can still fully enjoy real life experiences when we're so preoccupied with capturing the moment on our phones. With this in mind, it's interesting to see that no cameras are in the air during this one. 

A thumping rendition of the superb 'Kingdom Of Doom' provides us with a second helping of The Good, The Bad And The Queen, before the beauteous sigh of 'Poison' shines a light on a lesser known gem released on the Rocketjuice And The Moon album a while ago. But it's always Blur that gets people the most excited. Even a mere reference to them prompts cheers when the shadowy 'Hollow Ponds' references "modern life" sprayed on to a wall in 1993. There will be no big Blur hits tonight, but Gorillaz material is always guaranteed to go down a treat, and an irresistible 'El Mañana' is dished out brilliantly, before The Heavy Seas take a break for Damon to deliver a stunning solo rendition of the fragile acoustic treasure 'History Of A Cheating Heart', where his perfect vocal truly captivates.

Eventually he does pull out an old Blur classic, an elegantly sorrowful piano version of 2003's 'Out Of Time' which is met with rapturous applause from the small crowd. The band return, Damon straps on an electric guitar and the energy is pumped back up as they rip through the Bowie-aping 1997 b side 'All Your Life'. During the song, the stage crew guy from earlier attempts to fix a problem with Damon's guitar amp, but the guitar ends up being thrown to the floor in annoyance, and the performance becomes angrier. He seems to have sung himself into a better mood when he and the group return for an encore of Gorillaz's 'Last Living Souls' before a solid 'Clint Eastwood' sends the venue into a frenzy. Credit goes to Bristol rapper K*Ners who guested, providing his own impressive lines and pushing the vibrant mood up even further. If these gigs were intended as "warm ups", they seem to have done the trick nicely. 

A small gospel choir arrive onstage for the joyous singalong 'Mr Tembo', and a magnificently uplifting 'Heavy Seas Of Love', where Damon fills in Brian Eno's guest verses from the recorded version, strengthening the impact of the song. The night comes to an end with a graceful piano rearrangement of 'This Is A Low', which is played in a lower key that changes the whole mood of the song, replacing its epic power with something more understated. 

So a brilliantly eclectic set list and an impressively dynamic performance that gave us a satisfying mixture of almost every side of Albarn that we've known down the years. Adaptable, multi faceted, imaginative and always relishing a new challenge, he continues to grow and develop as an artist and performer while many others from his era stay in their comfort zones. Whether it's with Blur, Gorillaz, Africa Express or any of his other musical outlets, witnessing Albarn playing always feels like a privilege.

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