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Freetime meets Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn at Leytonstone Library gig showcasing new album Everyday Robots
Traipsing up the stone steps of Leytonstone Library, silently cursing the winter coat which was making me sweat profusely, I felt a sudden surge of panic.
Noting how people were quietly going about their business of returning, borrowing and perusing books, I was convinced I was in the wrong place.
Surely, Leytonstone-born Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur and the man behind Gorillaz, wasn’t performing a secret gig here?
A flurry of emails from his PR said so, but the woman at the front desk seemed less sure.
“Secret gig,” I murmured.
Perplexed look in response.
“Press...invited,” I gabbled, seemingly forgetting how to muster full sentences.
“Oh yes,” she whispered conspiratorially, pointing towards a narrow corridor, patrolled by burly security.
Which is how I found myself, on a balmy Wednesday afternoon, standing mere yards from Damon Albarn, as he rehearsed for an intimate family and friends’ gig that evening, organised to showcase new record Everyday Robots.
It’s his first solo album in a musical career spanning 25 years and is inspired by his own life, particularly his boyhood in Leytonstone and Colchester – hence the choice of Leytonstone Library as the venue.
Putting the finishing touches to the show, Damon revealed the perfectionist aspects of his personality as he directed the acts he would be performing alongside (Leytonstone’s Pentecostal City Mission Church Choir and his band The Heavy Seas): “I’m looking for that call and response”, he'd say, “That bit needs to go up for the key”, and “Ok, let’s go again”.
The only member of the press to have been invited to not just the rehearsal, but the show too, I’d already been warned that it was unlikely that I’d get to talk to Damon- I was here for the gig and to talk to the local choir.
But feeling like a 12-year-old girl who’d found the golden ticket, I couldn’t help mentally engineering scenarios in which we could meet. Years of tirelessly arguing why Blur is far superior to Oasis had to pay off. Maybe, just maybe, there’d be time in his schedule for a quick chat? Failing that, perhaps I’d bump into him coming out of the toilets.
The encounter happened hours later in a Leytonstone boozer after the gig, following a chance meeting with two of Damon’s old friends, Frances and Danny, earlier that day. “Damon? We’ve know him for years!” Danny had gushed. “We know the family well, his dad Keith, his mum Hazel.
“Damon lived at my sister-in-law’s in Leytonstone for a bit, he was always a nice boy and very talented too. Always interested in music, always doing something with it, his music teacher would rave about his talent. He’s done us really proud.”
Loitering outside the library after the show, I bumped into Frances again, who invited me to join Damon’s friends and family at The Red Lion, which was hosting a cockney knees-up with band The Gents, to celebrate St George’s day.
“He was great, don’t you think?” she asked as we walked towards the pub. I agreed. “I’m only relieved there weren’t any speakers about,” she added. “One time we saw him play live, he climbed up and jumped. Blood everywhere, all over his head. I remember thinking Damon NO! What are you doing?!
“But this was special, very intimate, very special.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Hazel, when I met her inside.
“Of course it was wonderful, he’s my son I couldn’t say anything else,” she said, smiling. “I loved what he did with Dr Deem, that’s probably my favourite, it was marvellous.
“I’m very proud of this though, the links to Leytonstone, to Colchester...His music teacher always said you couldn’t put him in a box. I think tonight’s proved that, don’t you?”
With no sign of Damon it was time to finish my drink, say my goodbyes and with a heavy heart, catch the last train home.
The pub door was still swinging behind me when we came face to face.
He was talking to Danny outside about the gig, stressing the importance of his Leytonstone and Essex roots and the impact it’s had upon his music.
“Damon,” said Danny, “this is my new friend Amie. She doesn’t know anyone here, so we’ve taken her under our wing.”
His infamous cheeky grin, resplendent with a solitary gold tooth, a grin that I had seen staring down at me from the posters which decorated the walls of my teenage bedroom, spread across his face.
“I’ll give you a hug then,” he said, wrapping his arms around me.
I’d finally found Damon.