You can’t help but want to hate Damon Albarn. While he may not be the most irritating of the Britpop survivors, (as long as fellow Blur-ite Alex James is still droning on about cheese, there’s no competition) he’s a convincing candidate for second place. He spent the 90s as a pop idol, singing chirpy Small Faces rip-offs and gnomic industrial rock. There were some great songs, but most of it sounds dated, lost to a cutesy strain of that most meaningless catchall – quintessential Englishness.
Then around the turn of the century he decided to become a sort of proto-hipster renaissance man, a Jonathan Miller figure for fortysomething men who think it’s OK to go to work on a skateboard. Over the last decade, he’s fronted cartoon hip-hop groups and banged out film soundtracks, experimental African electronica and po-mo operas. By rights, this should all have been just as terrible as it sounds. But infuriatingly, he has for the most part done it all very well.
I rubbed my hands with bloodthirsty expectation as I walked into the Albert Hall on Saturday. Few things are more cringe-worthy than pop stars who decide to go ‘respectable’, and taking on the Albert Hall suggests precisely that. I counted a good dozen blokes approaching middle age, wearing flat caps, trendy glasses and vintage rock T-shirts. Yes, I thought – this was going to be like shooting a whale in a swimming pool.
Support came from a Malian group called Songhoy Blues. They play an energetic but tuneless take on the West African ‘desert blues’ beloved of world music snobs. Fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but unless you care about the provenance of your tofu and subscribe to Guardian Soul Mates, I rather suspect you’re not. Suffice to say that a large part of the audience spent their set queuing for beer.
A half hour pause and a drum machine click-clacked into life, a bassline boinged and somewhere offstage, someone started blowing down a melodica. The crowd woooed and Albarn bounced to the front of the stage, looking exactly like Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character, right down to his rolling swagger. I laughed at some berk at the end of my row who’d got up and started dancing along to opening number ‘Spitting out the Demons’ – and then realised I was doing exactly the same thing myself. Yeah. I was actually really enjoying it.
What I’d forgotten is that when he’s on form, Albarn is a really, really good songwriter. He is also uncommonly good at being on form. I’d imagined we were in for an evening of tasteful, low-key stuff from his recent Everyday Robots album, but Albarn and his band were generous with his back catalogue. There were old Gorillaz songs, shorn of their novelty value and slathered in melodica harmonies, stuff he’d done with his short-lived supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and even a couple of old Blur numbers. It all sounded fresh, exciting and different – Out of Time, for example, was transformed from a sub-Coldplay wet blanket to a rough’n’ready croak-a-thon worthy of 80s Leonard Cohen.
The encores ushered in a luvvie luv-in that had the potential to be more embarrassing than anyone might dare imagine. First up on the special guest list was estranged Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who duetted on a couple of old 90s hits. Again, ‘Tender’ and ‘End of a Century’ sounded great stripped of context and naff Britpop production, touching rather than mawkish. There followed a parade of the great and the good – De La Soul, Malian traditional musicians Adel and Madou, washed-up noughties Grime star Kano, Brian Eno (Eno!) – which really should have been the most hollow, self-congratulatory spectacle since Bokassa’s coronation ceremony. But much as I wanted to groan, it worked.
I feel no remorse in writing that I was desperate to savage his gig at the Albert Hall on Saturday. I actively willed it to be a disaster. But I failed to shoot that whale, and even now I’m grating my teeth as I type. Because for all my reactionary poison, I cannot honestly write that he didn’t just pull it off. He killed it.