The UK feels like a very different place since I was last at a gig two months ago. Back when I was at Brixton Academy hollering along to the Charlatans in December, the lurking fear of renewed restrictions or even a lockdown was never far from my thoughts. But now, on this Sunday night in February, we gathered in East London’s Troxy on the eve of the announcement of the lifting of all COVID restrictions. Can it really be that a future now sprawls ahead of us where masks, social distancing and the threat of lockdowns are truly a thing of the past?
I’m not quite sure I’m ready to believe it just yet. But after a bumpy couple of months, filled with random illnesses and sundry work and family stresses, it was truly wonderful to find myself at a gig once again. I had in fact been due to see Damon Albarn a few days after the aforementioned Charlatans gig, when he played Union Chapel in mid-December, but was waylaid by a lurgy that managed to be completely vicious and incapacitating despite not actually being COVID. The fact that I was now rebooting my gigging life in 2022 with the very artist who should have been my last gig in 2021 felt comfortably fitting.
This was my first time attending a gig at Troxy, and I was impressed by its air of grandiosity and spacious comfort. There was an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie amongst the crowd, with many spontaneous chats arising amongst strangers. Despite having to brave torrential rain and an incapacitated Northern line in order to get there, it felt like a wonderful place to be this Sunday night.
This concert, part of Brits week and in aid of the War Child charity, began with a few speeches from representatives of the charity outlining some of its important work. Following this, and after a few bursts of random bird noises as the band members took the stage, Damon appeared with very little fanfare and began a complete run-through of his majestically serene latest album “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows”.
The orchestral landscapes of the album sounded incredible in this venue, with the resounding combination of strings and piano perfectly evoking a volcanic Icelandic panorama. Damon was in superb vocal form, able to capture the subtle intricacies of the album with ease, from the delicate melodic turns of the title track to the soaring power of “Royal Morning Blue”. I found myself slightly in awe as I thought back to my 16 year old self first catching a glimpse of him on TV as he laconically sang “There’s No Other Way”. I certainly could not have imagined that over 30 years later I’d be sat in a majestic venue with that same floppy-haired boy now in his 50s, performing these complex and intriguing songs with such power and skill.
The pinnacle of the set for me was “Polaris”, one of my absolute favourite songs of last year. Beginning as a mostly solo rendition with Damon and his piano, it morphed half-way through into a huge dance party of a number, Damon now playing the melody on what looked to be one of those mini-keyboard things that you blow into to create the sound, which I remember fondly from the mists of my childhood in the 80s. It was a truly wonderful and joyous experience that had me grinning from ear to ear, and made me wish that the gig had been a standing one so there was opportunity to dance and jump about.
The album performance concluded with a few ‘outtakes’ as Damon called them – three sparklingly melodic non-album tracks which would presumably have found their place as B-sides to singles in the olden days. And then Damon and the band left the stage, and the crowd waited in excited anticipation for an encore of maybe a few Blur and Gorillaz songs…
…and then then house lights went up. The disappointment was palpable amongst the crowd, and I was certainly not immune to it myself, especially given that the event page on Troxy’s website stated that he would be performing songs from across his career. Given that all his recent setlists for the warm-up shows to this tour have included Blur and Gorillaz tracks, it seems very odd to suddenly put a stop to that now the official tour has commenced.
But after such a majestic, powerful and joyous performance, that’s a relatively minor grumble. Damon Albarn continues to amaze with his sheer musical energy, bouncing from project to project with seemingly effortless glee. I remain hopeful that in the not too distant future I will be able to hear him sing some of the Blur songs that soundtracked my youth once again, but here in February 2022, his verve and energy as a solo performer is a wonderful thing to witness.