Damon Albarn, Rivoli Ballroom, gig review: 'A genuine thrill'
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Thursday 01 May 2014
If only more gigs could be like this: in a human-sized, modest yet luxurious popular palace such as Brockley’s hidden gem the Rivoli, London’s last surviving 1950s ballroom.
There’s none of the celebrity crush and panic of some deliberately under-sized appearance by a star, as 500 Albarn fans file in past the red velvet-lined walls and archaic brass fittings, Blur’s drummer Dave Rowntree unbothered amongst them.
This simply feels like a good place to play, especially for a man whose countless reinventions have finally arrived at a solo career, and the guise of an intimately confessional singer-songwriter.
His entirely unpredictable set-list tonight also reminds you how ubiquitous Albarn has been since Blur stopped wholly absorbing him. Ranging across The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Gorillaz, Blur, and other, utterly obscure songs he’s guested on, it’s as if Albarn has tipped his back-catalogue on the floor to prove there’s connection and worth to it all.
He’s brought a crack new band, The Heavy Seas. They make songs from his solo debut, Everyday Robots, far more vibrant and unapologetic than the spartan record. “The digital won’t let me go,” he sings on Gorillaz’ “Tomorrow Comes Today”, which links to the new songs’ pensiveness about the digitally totalitarian world filling in around us. Inevitably, some goon then demands a selfie. “Has it come to that stage?” he asks, exasperated at her inability to simply enjoy such a special night.
Damon Albarn also performed at Coachella 2013 The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s album is heavily mined, because it so clearly chimes with his new work. Their “History Song” is followed by one about his own history, “Hollow Ponds”. I’m the same age as Albarn, and know the titular corner of Leytonstone, bordering Epping Forest and studded with ponds and islands, deeply. So the personal freight feels especially profound, as Albarn lists crucial years of his life, beginning with 1976’s drought and ticking onto 1993’s first stirrings of Britpop and fame. Albarn gives it music hall melancholy at the piano, and references the 2-Tone of The Specials and Madness, too: his pop music as a boy.
“You And Me” is an autumnal wander through his west London life, heroin use and all, with electric guitar chimes dropping like leaves. “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)”’s English life and landscape then surges on the back of Albarn’s house music piano into a climax somewhere between a Bond theme and a club classic. “Kingdom of Doom”, crashing and chaotic, turns into a dubbed-up “London Calling”, and a gig which seemed likely to be intimately self-indulgent has become a genuine thrill.
The proggy, glam-Bowiesque belter which closes the main set turns out to be the barely known Blur B-side “All Your Life”. For the encore, rapper Kano injects further energy into Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood”, and a choir appear. Albarn finishes mostly solo at the piano, sometimes whispering Blur’s best song, “This Is A Low”. Tonight, though, has been a happy high.
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