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Live / stage review

Damon Albarn makes a triumphant return to Manchester International Festival

Under the elegant curvature of Manchester Central, MIF has delivered a long-awaited live performance by Damon Albarn.

12 July 2021 at
Damon Albarn with Melodica

Damon Albarn at Manchester International Festival 2021

Priti Shikotra

It’s 12 July 2021 and England (or ‘Merrie Land’, if you prefer) seems dazed by events at the Euros final. In Manchester, the sun has yielded to rain and pavements glisten. The Mancunian metropolis always looks good in sunshine but positively sparkles wet; it’s the city’s iconic look. As I walk to his show, I wonder if Damon Albarn appreciates the romantically rainy look, too. After all, he’s always had an eye for the quiddities of English towns and often uses his astute observations to take the country’s cultural pulse.

Tonight, Albarn showcases songs from his new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. Its title is taken from John Clare’s poetry―a Romantic with a characteristic penchant for the natural world. In the atmospheric space of Manchester Central, the set begins with the album’s mournful, meditative title track, for which the stage lights are dimmed. ‘Nearer the Fountain…’ makes for a beautiful live piece of music and gently introduces us to Albarn’s fantastic band, and to the themes of isolation, loss, hope, and recovery.

It's followed by ‘The Cormorant’ and ‘Royal Morning Blue’, both of which maintain a melancholic mood belying Albarn’s excitement to be performing live again. The audience receives these new additions to his songbook with a deep, quiet enjoyment. Then, as if swinging on a well-greased hinge, he turns himself 90 degrees from one keyboard to another and begins ‘Lonely Press Play’―an older song that bears a lot of tonal commonality with his new album and, as such, is particularly lovely to hear in this context.

Damon Albarn at the keyboard

Damon Albarn at Manchester International Festival 2021

Priti Shikotra

Albarn looks right at home, dressed in a loose-fitting, short-sleeved shirt and rolled up trousers. He lopes cheerfully around the stage, punctuating the performance with warm, off-the-cuff anecdotes, nattering away to us about all sorts―as if we’re old friends who’ve finally found time to drop in on him at his quirky music studio.

The band bounce and sway to each track, taking us through a fine selection from a large and varied catalogue―including plenty of material from The Good The Bad and The Queen, as well as a smattering of Gorillaz and Blur tracks. The set undulates with songs that variously embody Burkean sublimity, street-level social commentary, and a kaleidoscopic blend of world music. At their quietest, Albarn and co. produce moments of crystalline soulfulness (‘On Melancholy Hill’, ‘Out of Time’, ‘This is a Low’, ‘Hong Kong’); at their most rambunctious, they are devil-may-care circus ringmasters (‘Three Changes'); at their most foreboding, they are the tolling of a big warning bell (‘Nature Springs’, ‘The Great Fire’).

After a while of listening to Albarn sing, I notice how often the sea is mentioned or alluded to in his lyrics; it seems to provide him with a deep pool of imagery that conveys the ebb and flow of human existence within contemporary society. In ‘The Great Fire’, for example, it’s as if we’ve inexplicably woken in a dystopian version of Blackpool and are cursed to trudge its desolate streets, lost, before finding one of the "million ways back to the sea". In the wonderfully uplifting ‘Polaris’―the second single from the new album―we're encouraged to feel as though a directionless soul is not fated to be interminably lost in an ocean of uncertainty nor, indeed, dashed on the rocks of hard times.

Against the backdrop of a Covid-battered culture and a jaded, discombobulated population, this live performance offers the solace of a bright star reappearing in a vast inky sky.

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