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LIVE REPORT: Damon Albarn
Ben Cardew , July 15th, 2014 11:00

Ben Cardew attempts to get to grips with Damon Albarn (version 2014). Photo with thanks to Cruïlla festival.

A little over a year ago, Damon Albarn played the Parc del Fòrum, Barcelona's industrial playground by the sea, headlining Primavera Sound with a reunited Blur on the band's high-profile festival tour. Last week, the Britpop renaissance man was back at the Parc in rather different circumstances, appearing at the city's local-friendly (and largely unknown otherwise) Cruïlla festival, alongside an unlikely mixture of indie rap chancers (Macklemore), surf folk troubadours (Jack Johnson) and Catalan reggae (Bongo Botrako). More importantly, Albarn was going it alone this time, celebrating the release of his first solo album earlier this year, the downbeat electronic pop of Everyday Robots.

Of course, you could argue that Albarn has actually been flying solo for a while, what with Gorillaz effectively being a solo project backed by big-name collaborators. But the fact that Albarn is going out under his own name for the first time in a career of more than 20 years seems significant, particularly for an artist who remains one of Britain's most intriguingly talented.

It's a risky move too: Albarn's renown means he goes straight to the top of festival bills despite Everyday Robots being far from a peak time party album, and you wonder how many people at Cruïlla have even heard the record. The easiest path would be to roll out the hits: a 'Song 2' here, a 'DARE' there and have the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. But to Albarn's credit he rarely takes the simple route, with his Cruïlla set instead being a masterclass in mood and feel.

His 90-minute show is largely based around Everyday Robots, with that record's eclectic, adult pop sound dictating proceedings. He kicks things off with two of the album's best songs, 'Lonely Press Play' and 'Everyday Robots', their machine melancholia fitting in well among the woozy Mediterranean early evening. Live, the two songs are not notably different from on record. But being out in the air seems to suit them, with their sound liberated from a slightly stilted studio production.

And if Albarn has matured into a musical renaissance man, his years with Blur and Gorillaz have also turned him into a hell of a frontman, working the growing crowd relentlessly and always demanding more in response. Maybe it is just muscle memory. Or maybe going out solo has piqued his pride. But Albarn seems determined that this gig will be a success, and it transforms these early, dreamy songs into something much more robust. It helps, too, that Albarn's voice is magnificent throughout and his band, The Heavy Seas, lithe and note perfect.

The opening songs are followed by a trio of Gorillaz numbers. But again they're not the obvious hits, with the band drifting through the millennial blues hop of 'Tomorrow Comes Today', the dubby 'Slow Country' and a vicious 'Kids With Guns', its joyful menace surely among the best songs Albarn has ever written.

What is striking throughout is not just what a captivating entertainer Albarn is and what an excellent band he has assembled - particularly notable on The Good, The Bad & The Queen numbers 'Three Changes' and 'Kingdom Of Doom', where a drummer who looks barely out of his teenage years recreates Tony Allen's original Afrobeat swagger with aplomb - but what an incredible body of songs Albarn has to work with. 

Blur, for example, are represented by a gorgeous solo piano version of 'Out Of Time', 'Beetlebum' B-side, 'All Your Life' - an oddball anthem that deserves its new place in the spotlight - and Blur album track 'Strange News From Another Star'. These are hardly flagrant choices but they fit snugly into the Everyday Robots template, despite the intervening decade.

Maybe this, then, is key to the success of this gig: Albarn skilfully mines his back catalogue to create an environment in which the Everyday Robots songs come alive, weaving a web of fatalistic, clever pop songs which jackdaw inspiration from everything from dub to gospel. 

And he does it while slowly building excitement and tension, until the encore explodes in a raucous 'Clint Eastwood' - a moment of pop perfection - and Mr Tembo, an Everyday Robots song that is rather twee on record, but an anthemic beast live, as if the titular elephant has broken out of its orphanage and headed for a boozy night on the town. It is an improbably brilliant moment. But it is swiftly overshadowed by 'Heavy Seas Of Love', which closes the show. On Everyday Robots, the song is a neat - almost underwhelming - moment of gloomy reflection. But live, backed by six-piece choir, it packs a real emotional force, putting the song right among the likes of 'Beetlebum' in terms of cathartic release.

With the release of his debut album in April, many people wondered if we were finally going to see the real Damon Albarn, freed from the character songs of Blur and the spotlight-sharing collaborations of Gorillaz. This may be wishful thinking, of course, when faced with someone who has grown up musically in public like the Blur singer. Nevertheless, walking away from this Cruïlla gig on a hot Friday might in Barcelona, it is tempting to wonder if the real Damon Albarn (version 2014), is what we have just witnessed; if, in coming out under his own name, Damon Albarn is finally playing things straight, giving us a glance of his impeccably universal musical dreams and ambitions. 

Frankly, who knows? But authentic or not, this gig felt like Damon Albarn was genuinely welcoming us into his musical orbit, full of worldly wonder, British gloom and impeccable melody. And it felt fantastic.