Review: Damon Albarn, Manchester International Festival 2021

A few firsts for a Monday night.

First day of leaving the house in 2 weeks after not quite managing to avoid COVID’s touch.

First time at a live music gig since Supergrass, February 2020, because, you know…

First time that Damon Albarn has played a gig in two years and he looked as insanely overjoyed as the socially distanced, seated crowd before him.

Not his first Manchester International Festival, of course, his past MIF appearances include the world premiere of his opera Monkey: Journey to the West, which opened the very first Festival back in 2007.

Given a pre-show warning not to ‘incite the crowd to stand’, Damon walking onto the stage was indeed the first challenge for us, the seated crowd. In fact we, the seated crowd, gave it our best effort not to stand, any incitement on the part of Mr Albarn purely incidental and unconscious.

Don’t tell anyone, but the temptation of giving the man a standing ovation was too much to ignore (all still in our socially distanced areas, and masked up of course). However, it could easily be explained as us all simultaneously standing as a prelude to leaving our seats. Whilst clapping and cheering with glee. Simultaneously.

The talent on the stage from all involved (not excluding the admirable work of the gentlemen dashing up and down to unravel Damon’s mic wire as his boundless energy took him from left to right, to centre stage and back and forth to organ and keyboards) was mindblowing.

With musicians including those from overlapping outfits Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and a songbook spanning all of Albarn’s career (I can’t keep sounding like my 15 year old self calling him Damon), yes , including Blur, it was a 90 minute musical masterclass.

Growing up near Blackpool (hence my honorary status) but leaving over 20 years ago, I’m charmingly (even though I do say so myself) excited whenever I hear a nod to my almost hometown (I wasn’t born there either but I won’t digress). Within seconds of Albarn entering our midst, he’d remarked how similar the GMEX (yes, and we’ll never call it anything else) was to the North Pier theatre, just with a higher roof.

“Yes Damon, it really is!!”, I silently, yet still manically, concurred. I always appreciated the line

…Blackpool looks blue and red…

(and wonderfully I got to appreciate it live when the show finished on a high with This Is A Low), and the references continued with track The Great Fire (The Good, The Bad and The Queen) – ‘Starr Gate, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and even my old stomping ground, the neighbouring Preston station,’ surely Damon Albarn’s earned his honorary Blackpoolian title by now?

Importantly, Albarn introduced us to tracks from the upcoming release and new and second solo studio album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. The name taken from a John Clare poem, and originally intended to be an orchestral piece, the works were developed throughout lockdown and expanded to 11 tracks exploring the themes of fragility, loss, emergence and rebirth.

First in the set, and before a single note was played, Albarn explained that the title song from the album was set before dawn and so it was very politely requested to an invisible being out there in the ether that the lights in GMEX (yes GMEX and it’s also still NYNEX whilst we’re on this), be turned right down – in scenes reminiscent of a certain Linton Travel Tavern, “bit more, bit more…”

A touch of theatre or not (I’m actually going with not), the tone was set and the hair on my arms (which you should know is sparse, barely visible and very ladylike) became raised as the lights were lowered. I also made a mental note of where on the floor I’d left my drink, given my predilection for spilling beverages in dark (and to be fair also non-dark) environments.

My anticipation was greatly rewarded. Followed by The Cormorant, Royal Morning Blue, the opening trio of pieces from this album delivered rousing and eclectic melodies, providing the goosebumps and joy that only live music can bring. And boy have we all missed that feeling.

Recently released single Polaris came storming through towards the end, audience participation encouraged to help him hit the first note.

I guess you had to be there to enjoy the accompanying Elton John anecdote, but here’s a thrown bone of a previously recorded performance of the song – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaxIQdHYt8I

With a set list also delving into Albarn’s incredible back catalogue, we were gifted a journey through some of his finest works, including his work with the aforementioned outfits as well as Massive Attack and the great, late drummer and composer, Tony Allen, who Albarn paid emotional tribute to during the gig.

With an encore I’ve never quite witnessed before (Albarn politely explaining beforehand that the artists would be leaving the stage briefly, requesting permission to return in due course if that was ok and we hadn’t had enough), it could be have been my elation at leaving the house for the first time in a fortnight, or simply listening to music for the first time in 17 months where I hadn’t had to use an app or go through Alexa first.

Or it could simply have been the magic that Damon Albarn and his fellow musicians brought to Manchester last night, but as nights out go, this was a high.

SET LIST

The Nearer The Fountain
The Cormorant
Royal Morning Blue
Lonely Press Play
Good Song
Ghost Ship
Go Back
1917
Saturday Come Slow
The Great Fire
The Tower of Montevideo
The Poison Tree
El Manana
Hong Kong
3 Changes
Darkness to Light
On Melancholy Hill
Out of Time
Nature Springs
Polaris
This is a Low

Manchester International Festival runs until this Sunday 18 July. For more information on the full programme (most of which I missed due to bloody Covid), go to https://mif.co.uk/

Preorder the new album from Damon Albarn here. Release date: 12 November 2021.

The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows (album version) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLfZHWNXZ3M

Photo credits: Manchester International Festival and author’s own

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