The Quietus NOVEMBER 20, 2014 - by Darren Lee


Damon Albarn is joined by a whole host of collaborators at the Royal Albert Hall, including Madou Diabeté, Brian Eno and Graham Coxon.

It's fair to say that Damon Albarn and hubris haven't always proved a winning combination: numerous times in their turbulent career Blur have had to pick themselves up off the floor after falling victim to their own hype. Perhaps it's part of the reason why this musical polymath has frequently been easier to admire than truly love. Still, as he swaggers on stage for the first of two sold out nights at the Royal Albert Hall, it's hard to begrudge him his air of justified triumphalism. As a performer he's equal parts gauche, infuriating, erudite, irrepressible, inspired; its this mass of contradictions which have made him such an enduringly compelling frontman.

This a solo gig in name alone, of course. Albarn's celebrated musical promiscuity means that over the course of these two hours we're treated to a dizzying roll call of bona fide pop legends. Such is the outpouring of goodwill directed towards our host from audience and collaborators alike, tonight's set feels at times like an extended episode of This Is Your Life, with Michael Aspel and his big red book seemingly the only special guests not to turn in a cameo by the end of the evening.

"It's terrifying coming here, but we've basically just decided it's one big pub", Damon explains as he urges the audience to break with decorum and get up from their seats. It's a nice line in self-deprecation, but in truth it's difficult to imagine a man who has headlined Glastonbury two years in a row being fazed by anything. Any niggling concerns that the understated charms of the Everyday Robots material may fail to translate to such a grandiose setting are swiftly allayed. The title track and Lonely Press Play are both greeted like firm favourites, even if their cautionary observations on the alienating impact of technology appear to have fallen on deaf ears judging by the ubiquitous sea of smartphones being held aloft. Controversial heroin opus You And Me, an album highlight, sounds even more epic and transcendental live than on record, stealthily building before reaching its woozy, euphoric coda. Sensibly, these downbeat solo cuts are interspersed with more energetic Gorillaz material, with house band The Heavy Seas lending a taut rhythmic urgency to Kids With Guns and a dense fug of white noise to the atmospheric Tomorrow Comes Today.

Kingdom Of Doom, one of a couple of songs aired from the underrated The Good, The Bad & The Queen album, proves an unlikely crowd-pleaser, ferocious, pounding piano chords underpinning an eloquent elegy for doomed Britannia ("drink all day, because the country's at war"). The introduction of Adel Bocoum and kora player Madou Diabeté onto the stage for a couple of tracks from 2002's Mali Music heralds the set's most surprising and courageous interlude. Diabeté's impassioned appeal for western support for the Ebola crisis provides a sobering counterpoint to the undignified circus surrounding Band Aid 30, while the ethereal splendour of Sunset Coming On showcases the esoteric delights of an album Albarn claims changed his life.

From here on in, we're in altogether more familiar territory. After crooning his way, Elton John-style, through a piano rendition of late-period Blur gem Out Of Time, Damon invites Graham Coxon on-stage for a heavily trailed reunion. The pair perform three songs together: a misty-eyed acoustic version of Britpop classic End Of A Century, the first ever live airing of Great Escape-era B-side The Man Who Left Himself (from "our difficult period" Damon quips) and a rapturously received Tender. Within the context of the set, it's a rare excursion into conventional nostalgia, and the crowd unashamedly lap it up.

Improbably, the excitement hasn't yet peaked, as Albarn leads his band back on stage for a star-studded encore. Mr Tembo, his jaunty ode a baby elephant, comes across as rather twee on record, but here, helped by the rousing gospel accompaniment of the Leytonstone City Mission Choir, it's transformed into something joyous and bordering on profound. De La Soul raise the roof off with their boisterous contribution to Feel Good Inc, before Grime icon Kano ably deputises for Del The Funky Homosapien on a barnstorming run-through of Clint Eastwood. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is held back until the end. Introduced as someone who has "been a huge influence on me personally", Brian Eno arrives on stage for a rare public appearance, lending his dulcet tones to sweetly anthemic set closer Heavy Seas Of Love, with the full gospel choir joining in for its warm embrace of a chorus. It's a suitably euphoric climax, and somehow in keeping with an evening which feels like a celebration of a charismatic yet misunderstood talent, who the British public may belatedly have learned to take to their hearts.