Over the course of Damon Albarn’s 25-year career, he’s always seemed most comfortable hiding behind his music.
We’ve had the Britpop poster boy: the swaggering front man of Blur, who delighted in lampooning modern Britain with his cheeky lyrics. In Gorillaz he was the cool, cartoon hip hop superstar. There are the collaborations, of course, the innumerable one-off super groups, and the forays into global music – sessions with Malian musicians and a trip to China to write opera.
But he’s never made an album about Damon...that is, until now.
Everyday Robots, a 12-track, elliptical record, follows Damon through every aspect of his life – from his birthplace in Leytonstone through to his travels in Tanzania.
So what better place to showcase the album than where it all started, which is where I found myself on a warm, Wednesday evening.
No, not Tanzania. Leytonstone. In a side room in Leytonstone Library, to be precise.
With its small stage, lack of bar and church-hall style velveteen curtains, it’s the sort of place you’d imagine local drama groups rehearsing. But that evening, for a crowd of no more than 50, it was the venue Damon had decided to perform a gig.
Taking to the stage in his uniform of smart suit jacket and jeans, he was joined by The Heavy Seas: Seye (guitar), Pauli The PSM (drums), Jeff Wootton (bass) and Mike Smith (keyboards), string ensemble Demon Strings, and Leytonstone’s very own Pentecostal City Mission Church Choir.
But this wasn’t any ordinary show. This was an intimate performance, specifically for friends and family. As such, this was Damon as I’d never seen him before: vulnerable, his soul bared in front of those that matter most, his loved ones.
Smiling and affectionately welcoming his guests, there was no pretension, no bluster – just warmth. He opened with the rhythmic heartbeat of Lonely Press Play, progressing through to Everyday Robots – a reflection of our increasing alienation through technology.
Following this was the heart-wrenchingly beautiful Hostiles, the other-worldly You and Me (sans Brian Eno, who plays synths on the album), and Photographs, a comment on our preoccupation with documenting events rather than experiencing them - moving enough to embarrass me to put my camera away and stop filming the show.
In between songs he occasionally stopped to converse with the audience, often watching to see reactions of those gathered – including his father Keith (who appeared to be wearing the same style of suede boots as Damon) and mother Hazel.
His biggest fan however, was a little girl in a red checked dress, who swayed in time to the music with her mum, and often elicited a beaming smile and the odd comment from Damon.
Unless you specifically look for meaning, there are no obvious, dazzling revelations about Damon in any of these songs. Hollow Ponds, one of the stand-out tracks of the night, is a different story altogether, as it’s inspired by his childhood and progression through to adulthood. Dedicating the track “to the people of Leytonstone”, he sang of heatwaves, holidays and the Modern Life graffiti which inspired Blur’s ‘93 album Modern Life is Rubbish.
By the end of the song, there was barely a dry eye in the house, and sensing the need to change tempo, what followed was the gospel-heavy, ukulele-twanging Mr Tembo – a track about an elephant he encountered in Tanzania, and the woozy, call and response chanting of Heavy Seas of Love. Both upbeat. Both uplifting. Both unforgettable.
Despite the stripped-down elements of the performance, all of his musical obsessions were present throughout: the Caribbean and African beats, the ominous classical instrumentation and of course, the odd nonsensical rhyme.
With an night spent reminiscing, there could be no other way to finish than with two Blur songs – For Tomorrow and a magical piano version of This Is A Low.
It’s difficult to express the impact this gig has had on me. Days later, I’m still struggling to put it into words. Magical? Memorable? It’s all too twee.
What I can be sure of is this: of all of his personas, Damon’s finest has to be his own.