Damon Albarn at the Shakespeare’s Globe
London was swathed in a soporific early autumn mist on Monday evening that subdued the hard lights of the city and gave everything a dreamy corona. The Globe made an ideal venue, warm enough in the seated area but with a fresh breeze blowing off the river. Damon Albarn took to the stage in double denim, a Fred Perry polo shirt, nerdy glasses and desert boots. The instruments were decorated with an asymmetric seven-sided star.
The singer opened with the title track from his latest project, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. The album is due to be released in November, his first solo release since 2014’s Everyday Robots. The title is an excerpt from the poem Love and Memory by 19th century poet John Clare (the son of a farm labourer whose verse about the countryside he grew up in earned him the accolade “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced”). The track is like a tone poem: soothing and hypnotic. It is quietly sublime.
Albarn was shaman-like, conjuring a one-night-only mood in this extraordinary space with his extraordinary music. He greeted the full moon (“The harvest moon, a big one,” he informed the audience), and lamented that it had declined to show itself. He expanded on the aesthetic behind the song The Tower of Montevideo, which was inspired by the thought of an abandoned cruise ship in the mist. One would occasionally see lights on and hear strains of music drifting to shore, and the song was what he imagined this ghostly band might play. It did have something of Club Tropicana hauntingly performed by ghost pirates. Later, Albarn asked for the house lights to be brought down – all but the firelights were extinguished – and it felt strangely like being on a ship, enclosed against the mist of the Thames. One felt the history of the building, recalling the Elizabethans, who built a monument to wondrous stories for the London public, hungry for enchantment.
That was certainly what was on offer here, with unusual instruments and stories gathered by one man’s restless creativity. Albarn sang and played the piano, his delicate, frayed voice mesmerising. He brought on Sekou Keita, who plays the kora, a West African stringed instrument that sounds somewhere between a harp and guitar, with a looser, more watery sound. The other guests were the Icelandic theorbo player, Arngeir Hauksson, and the extraordinary countertenor, Christopher Robson, who sang Edward Kelly from Albarn’s 2012 opera about the Elizabethan mystic Dr John Dee.
With Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, and his solo work, Albarn has a vast back catalogue to draw from, hence the fact that the show was two hours long and 25 songs were played. Different strands were pulled out from his work: Lonely Press Play was enhanced with a more prominent drum beat; The Good, the Bad and the Queen’s Three Changes had the sound of ska in a demented fairground one hadn’t chosen to visit. There were inflections of reggae towards the end of the set, and it was interesting to watch dancing spread through the pit like wildfire. The performance rounded back to a more sombre note with the last songs, Particles and Polaris from new project On Melancholy Hill, ending with Blur’s This Is a Low.
Albarn gave off little flecks of cheekiness to let fans know that, though he is now stately, he is also the man who gave them Song Two and Girls and Boys. He wiggled his bum, encouraging the musicians by pumping his arms as if conjuring the notes himself, and held onto audience members like an American TV evangelist healing them.
In less generous hands, this could seem like posturing, but Albarn’s lifelong curiosity about, and delight in, music makes that feeling infectious. There’s still a wry and sexy soul alongside the earnest music appreciation. Like the reverend of an autumn equinox, hailing his harvest moon, he wove a dreamlike spell in central London. His music is complex and rewarding, and, with its disparate inspirations, this show was mystical.
Photos: Ambra Vernuccio
For further information and future events visit Damon Albarn’s website here.
Watch the video for the single Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows here: