Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Damon Albarn Live at the Royale, Boston (June 9, 2014): A Concert Review


Last night, I caught Damon Albarn on his brief East Coast tour of the US in support of his solo album Everyday Robots. He's only playing five dates, one of which (Baltimore) was cancelled. Luckily, Boston was the second stop and is a city he always plays since it's "America's London" and also an important for every band. Blur and Damon have a large and dedicated following here as well, so it's always a great crowd. The show was at Royale in the Theater District of Boston, which is a venue I'd not seen a show at before, but I have to say it was a good place for a concert...pretty small, open, and good acoustics. There were probably around 400 in the crowd and the sound quality was actually some of the best I've ever heard at a club show; perhaps the bass drum was mixed a bit too high but I thought everything else was balanced nicely and it was loud but pleasing to the ears.  The harshness usually associated with all too many club shows was not present and there wasn't a single time when I wished I'd had ear plugs. So enough of that...on to the show itself! 

First, the set list:


Lonely Press Play
Everyday Robots 
Intermission
Tomorrow Comes Today
Hostiles
Slow Country
Kids With Guns
3 Changes
You and Me
Photographs (You Are Taking Now)
Kingdom of Doom
Poison
Hollow Ponds
El Manana
History of a Cheating Heart (Damon solo on acoustic guitar)
Out of Time (Damon solo on piano)
All Your Life
------------------
Last Living Souls
Mr. Tembo
Heavy Seas of Love
Song 2

As you can see, it's a great cross-section of all phases of Damon's career. Obviously, it's heaviest on tracks from the new album, but Gorillaz, The Good The Bad & The Queen, and even Rocket Juice & the Moon are all represented. Beyond that, it's nice to see that he isn't relying on more obvious and popular songs every night...songs like "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc," for example, have been played at his solo shows, but the set list is mixed up enough from show to show to keep it interesting. I don't intend to go song by song because that would just get boring and, honestly, I don't remember at which point during the show everything was said and done, so I'll just stick to highlights. After coming onstage and giving us a quick "good evening, Boston!" Damon introduced himself and his band and said "we're The Heavy Seas." He also wasted no time in drenching us with water from his bottles, which is to be expected any time you see Damon and you're near the front! It felt good given how humid it was outside. They then kicked the show off with "Lonely Press Play," which had a great beat as on the album but was more powerful and beautiful with the backing of a full band (more on them later). Before "Tomorrow Comes Today," Damon couldn't find his melodica so while he was waiting for someone to get it, he sat down at the piano, said "I know what I can play!" and banged out an impromptu version of "Intermission" until it turned up!  Even after it did, he realized after the song started that the mouthpiece was missing, so he chuckled and played it just fine by blowing directly into it.





The pacing of the set was excellent, with the quieter, slower songs placed at just the right times to change the mood. I have to say that the rapport between Damon and the crowd was superb, and during the quiet songs there was hardly any noise apart from quiet singing along...we were hanging on every word and every note. In particular, when he sat on the piano and played "History of a Cheating Heart" on acoustic guitar and followed it at the piano with "Out of Time," both solo, they were very special moments.  The arrangement of the excellent Blur B-side "All Your Life" rocked hard and was noisy and hearkened back to the sound and ethos of the self-titled Blur album (which is the era it hails from). Damon was in a very talkative, happy mood throughout and told stories before some of the songs, such as "You and Me," and there was fun banter going back and forth between him and those of us up front (I was there with friends and we were probably three or four people back from the front of the stage). Before "Mr. Tembo," someone threw an elephant hat onstage that they'd either made or bought which Damon put on, to laughs from all of us. After the song, he asked if he had to give it back or if he could keep it...when told it was for him, he seemed touched and he wore it for the rest of the show, which is impressive as by this time it was really hot in there! A gospel choir from Texas that he'd worked with at the SXSW Festival was brought on for "Mr. Tembo" and "Heavy Seas of Love"...they were warmly received by us and sounded great. Damon let the crowd sing several of the choruses of the latter song and the band had some fun near the end, playing around with the dynamics before ending the song. Before the final song, which we were all expecting to be "This is a Low," Damon introduced the drummer, Gabriel, as someone who had played with him in Gorillaz before but was filling in for the Heavy Seas' regular drummer who was attending his sister's wedding. Damon said Gabriel had only practiced with them that morning, which was incredible to hear because he was so absolutely, ridiculously fantastic the entire show that I had no idea he wasn't a member of the band. After warning us that "this is either going to be a disaster or it's going to turn out okay," they wrapped the show up with a manic "Song 2" that had everybody jumping and shouting like crazy. With that, the show was over, but not after Damon and the band had taken us on a musical journey lasting two hours.




The music was great, but so was the performance...for anyone who has seen Damon live in concert, regardless of the project, you know what I mean when I say that he has an absolutely masterful and magnetic stage presence that captivates you...you can't take your eyes off the man. He did everything from singing, playing piano, acoustic and electric guitar, all the while strolling across the stage or, in some songs, jumping and going crazy as much as he ever has. As for the Heavy Seas? They are a PHENOMENAL band; comprising of long-time Blur touring member Mike Smith on keyboards and backing vocals, Seye on bass, guitar, and backing vocals, Jeff Wootton on guitar, bass, and backing vocals, and (for this night), Gabriel on drums, they were musically tight but able to adapt to whatever was going on onstage, and they had great personality...even though Damon is the star, we all cheered for the guys and they gave it right back to us.

I've gone on record here and elsewhere as having been slightly underwhelmed with Everyday Robots...I like the album but I feel it sounds a bit samey and I am not crazy about the production. However, the songs sound so much better in a live setting that it's like they are completely different. After the concert, I've listened to the album a few more times and I can now appreciate the songs in a new light...I enjoy them immensely now and I think I'll have to upgrade my previous rating of 7 out of 10 to more like a 9!

This was the third time I've seen Damon live, and each time was with a different one of his bands. After each of those previous two shows, I'd considered them to be among the best concerts I'd ever been to. I still do, but I have to say that this was probably the best of the three times I've seen him. He is older, wiser, and just so confident with not only his new material but with everything he's done in his career.  With such a rich and deep well of material to draw on, as well as a band more than capable of playing even the most sacred of Blur material, the evening was one of pure joy.  

If you've seen Damon before, you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, I can't recommend it enough. As one of the most talented musicians and songwriters of his generation, as well as an all-time personal favorite of mine, he is one of the few who I will do everything in my power to see any time he plays near me.

I also took a bunch of pictures which I've interspersed throughout the post...the rest of them are below and they're in chronological order from the beginning of the show to the end. I hope you enjoy them! Feel free to comment below if you've been to any of his solo shows, or any of his shows from years past...it's always nice to talk with fellow fans!

Queuing up about an hour before doors opened...the line was MUCH longer, glad I got there early!

The stage set-up before the show started

The band stroll on stage

Damon greets us and says "we are The Heavy Seas"









Where is the melodica?

Still trying to locate it...

How about some "Intermission" until it turns up?












Telling us the story behind "You and Me"







It's Smoggy!
 




Introducing "History of a Cheating Heart"

Smoggy made him laugh so he had to start over!


"Out of Time" solo at the piano






Someone yells out that they have a hat for Damon...

Introducing the gospel choir

The elephant hat and "Mr. Tembo!"











2 comments:

  1. Glad you are appreciating Everyday Robots more now. I know what you mean about the very minimalist production. The bass lines in particular make you miss Alex James badly - but the songs themselves are pure class. And as you say, they come alive on stage.

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    1. Exactly! I could actually imagine several of them working with Blur, although at the same time some of them reminded me of Think Tank in terms of instrumentation and feel, and even though I consider it a Blur album, it's also the transitional springboard for Damon out of Blur and into his eventual solo career.

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