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It was a little over twenty-years ago when Blur released their seminal album, Parklife. Blur singer Damon Albarn’s toothy grin and tousled brown hair had been a fixture in the British music scene since 1991’s top-fifty UK hit, “She’s So High,” but Parklife was the first time his ambitions were sprawled over the entirety of one album. A career defining moment for Albarn and Blur, it would prove to be one of many spread out over the course of the past two decades.
Between 1994 and 2014, Albarn had reached the highest highs and the lowest lows of the music industry. From developing a both crippling and inspiring heroine addiction to headlining Glastonbury and Coachella with not one but two of his bands, Albarn had lived through the rock cliches to the nth degree. He also bucked many of those cliches and, by doing so, has created two separate legacies: Blur, and his myriad solo side projects that have consumed most of his time since the dawn of the 20th century.
His most popular side-project, Gorillaz, made him an unknown superstar in America by eschewing the use of his own face and image. The band’s cartoon visage allowed him to shy away from the spotlight while still providing his recognizable voice to many of their song’s instantly catchy hooks. Never one to sit on his laurels for too long, Albarn released four albums under his Gorillaz pseudonym over the past decade. In the same time frame, he had formed a band with an ex-member of The Clash (Paul Simonon and The Good, The Bad and The Queen), helped create both a Chinese opera (Monkey: Journey to the West) and his own opera (Dr. Dee) and has collaborated with everyone from a Snoop Dogg and Brian Eno to Flea and Lou Reed.
A relentlessly creative spirit, Albarn finally got around to releasing his first solo album, Everyday Robots, earlier this year and seems to be finally ready to own up to his own legacy. He stopped by Boston’s Royale in support of said solo album, though his set felt more like a career long celebration. Coming on stage with that same toothy grin (though this time with a few gold teeth in the mix), Albarn was in good spirits throughout most of the set.
His excellent band, The Heavy Seas, immediately launched into a heavy version of Everyday Robots’ first two singles: “Lonely Press Play” and the album’s title track. While the album is down-tempo and somber, The Heavy Seas brought a fiery, dub-heavy interpretation to the stage while Albarn leapt around the stage like a madman. Soaking the crowd with one of his water bottles, Albarn declared that “It’s not Monday. It’s never Monday!” The celebratory mood continued with a handful of Gorillaz songs, including early cuts like “Tomorrow Comes Today” and even a rare outing of Blur’s “Intermission.”
While it was obvious that there was a portion of the crowd who were only familiar with Albarn’s output as Gorillaz, there was still a good amount of people who appreciated the entirety of his eclectic discography. In fact, some of the best moments of his set were from his lesser known material: The Good, The Bad and The Queen’s pounding and relentless “Kingdom of Doom” quickly bled into Rocket Juice and the Moon’s “Poison,” a funky number that walked the tightrope of melodic clarity and lyrical sadness. Guitarist Jeff Wootton concocted a heady blend of dubby, echoey noise in the background and gave many of these songs a powerful and encompassing sound.
However, the clear highlight of the night was a beautiful and stripped down version of Blur’s “Out of Time.” When the song was released in 2003, it marked a dark time for Albarn and Blur (its parent album, Think Tank, is the last album Blur have released). Eleven years later, Albarn’s version is now a wistful take on the original; looking back and remembering but never dwelling in those sad times before launching into a rousing version of Blur b-side “All Your Life.”
“Mr. Tembo,” the lighthearted American single off of Everyday Robots, was an unexpected high point of the set. Albarn brought out a choir he met in Austin and they provided powerful backing vocals while Albarn bashed away at his guitar whilst wearing a hat that looked like an elephant that someone threw on stage (the Mr. Tembo in question being an elephant Albarn met in South America). The joy on Albarn’s face was palpable as the band progressed into a moving version of the album’s final track, “Heavy Seas of Love.”
As a real treat for Boston Blur fans who haven’t had a chance to hear any Blur songs live since 2003, Albarn closed his set with an energetic version of the band’ biggest American single, “Song 2.” Totally unexpected, as this was the first time Albarn has played this song with his solo band, the crowd was (appropriately)ecstatic. After such a stellar performance, hopefully Boston won’t need to wait another eleven years to hear some of these tunes live.