Damon Albarn knows how to put on a show. Whether it’s playing festival headlining slots with Blur, arena shows with Gorillaz or The Tower Of London with The Good, The Bad And The Queen, his bristling charisma, self-deprecating humour and ability to get the best out of his band (whoever they are) has a way of winning over an audience.
Tonight’s gig at this stunning 1950s ballroom complete with chandeliers and glitter balls, comes with a degree of trepidation though. How will the excellent, but resolutely low-key Everyday Robots album be received, just a few days after release and compete with that revered back catalogue?
Resplendent in a sharp black suit and backed by his new band The Heavy Seas he opens with the sparse, dub of Lonely Press Play before the gloriously, lumbering Everyday Robots ramps up the claustrophobic atmosphere in an already sultry ballroom. But after a boisterous rendition of Gorillaz’s Tomorrow Comes Today, Damon, ever the crowd-pleaser, explains the plan for the evening: "We’re covering a lot of ground. We’re playing a lot of music we’ve never played tonight. I hope you like it and I hope the people in the audience who made this music like it as well."
An explosive Kingdom Of Doom from The Good, The Bad And The Queen era sits alongside a long forgotten rowdy Blur b-side All Your Life and a shiver-down-the-spine singalong rendition of Clint Eastwood in which rapper Kano joins Albarn on stage. But the new songs hold up well in this company; with the autobiographical Hollow Ponds given a Bowie-esque coda and the stunning and eerie You & Me growing in intensity before breaking into a warm melodic finale.
Throughout, The Heavy Seas allow Albarn to show off his songcraft in its best light; the drummer pounding the skins as if his life depends on it, while the guitar work is agile and rhythmic. On Blur ballads This Is A Low and the poignant Out Of Time, they leave Damon alone with his piano. “The thing I like about this band… is that they can all sing in harmony”, Albarn quips, possibly referring to his Blur bandmates, after a joyous take on El Manana.
Joined by an impossibly tight choir for the nursery-rhyme bounce of Mr Tembo and the catchy Heavy Seas Of Love, Albarn once again proves he knows how to pick and choose his collaborators to make his songs, new or old, shine. The UK’s ultimate showman is fast becoming one of its ultimate songwriters.