The evening’s euphoric mood is set in motion by relentlessly upbeat Malian support act Songhoy Blues whose frontman, Aliou Touré, has a neat line in infectiously chirpy dance moves to accompany their scuzzy, punchy blues.
This celebratory tone is seized by Damon Albarn upon his entrance, instantly imploring those in the stalls to rise out of their seats while opting to launch his two-hour set with a beefed-up take on Gorillaz B-side ‘Spitting Out The Demons’. That this is received like a world-conquering smash confirms that he will not need to work hard to win over this Royal Albert Hall audience, and yet what follows is a master class in how to craft a career-spanning setlist.
Songs from ‘Everyday Robots’ (review), one of 2014’s finest albums, are peppered across the evening, often met with mass sing-alongs and benefiting from the more visceral, raucous energy of live performance. ‘Photographs’, in particular, shifts gear towards its conclusion bubbling up to a wall of noise that dramatically subsides into a driving drumbeat to cue up an emphatic ‘Kingdom Of Doom’.
The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s sole album to date is also plundered for a whirling rendition of ‘Three Changes’ which culminates in a delicate breakdown for which Albarn wanders into the crowd, delivering the “oh, it’s alright” refrain directly to a clearly ecstatic audience member who’d rushed in for a hug. It’s one of those glorious moments that live music affords where any sense of division between artist and public is dissolved.
This being a London show at a prestigious venue, special guests are to be expected, but the utter delight on Albarn’s face as he welcomes Afel Bocoum and Madou Diabeté, collaborators from 2002’s ‘Mali Music’ album, to the stage suggests that this is every bit as enjoyable for him as it is for those watching on. After a beautiful rendering of ‘Bamako City’, ‘Sunset Coming On’ serves as a reminder of how many lost nuggets there are scattered across our host’s catalogue.
‘You & Me’, the highlight from his solo record, swells majestically, hardened and emboldened by life on the road and the faux controversy the press whipped up around release. The steel drums punctuate the song emotively, triggering its second, cathartic phase and leaving plenty in the crowd a little moist-eyed. A pared-down ‘Out Of Time’, several mid-period Gorillaz tracks and a genial blast through Blur B-Side ‘All Your Life’ bring the main set to an end, ahead of a ridiculously impressive pair of encores.
First to put in an appearance is Graham Coxon, still seemingly immune to the effects of age, for a communal delivery of ‘End Of A Century’, before giving ‘The Man Who Left Himself’, a B-side from 1996’s ‘Stereotypes’ single, its debut live outing. Neither of them can remember where it was from, but have an enjoyable stab at it in a fashion that suggests rehearsal time wasn’t especially generous.
A typically rapturous run through of ‘Tender’ sends everyone back to the wings once more, but it’s not long before Leytonstone City Mission Choir emerge for a performance of ‘Mr Tembo’ which has you wondering why some people are quite so sneery about its simple but melodic charms. Watching the entirety of the Royal Albert Hall up and dancing, it’s hard to sense any cynicism in the vicinity. And, with 5,000 people in the palm of his hand, Albarn invites De La Soul out for a euphoric ‘Feel Good Inc’., before a notably refreshed Kano charges on for ‘Clint Eastwood’.
Looking both delighted and emotional, this quite remarkable artist has put on a show that few have the strength and breadth of material to even imagine. Just when it seems that the mood can be lifted no further, Damon turns to the crowd, somewhat humbled, and introduces a rare live appearance by Brian Eno, accompanying him on the closing track from ‘Everyday Robots’, ‘Heavy Seas Of Love’. The performance is gorgeous, but it’s hard to tell if anyone notices, in between staring wide-eyed and awed at a true musical legend. This, perhaps, shouldn’t have been so difficult to do as, arguably on this form, they’d already been doing it for the past two hours.
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Words: Gareth James
Photo: Linda Brown Lee