After a long night featuring sets alternatively blistering (Perfect Pussy, Eagulls), danceable (Kelis), and mind-altering (St. Vincent), somewhere around 1:20 AM, NPR’s Wednesday night SXSW showcase wound around to its headliner, Damon Albarn. The show happened at Stubb’s BBQ, which by SXSW standards is considered a larger stage (or, at least, it has been considered as such over the years), even though you’re essentially seeing an arena artist play in a backyard. Given, Albarn was a pop star and an arena headliner in other contexts — first with Blur, then with Gorillaz — and even though his new solo sets might gesture at the different eras of his fruitful career, there is definitely a certain stripped-down intimacy to the size and tone of the show Albarn’s crafted in the lead-up to his first full-fledged solo album, Everyday Robots, which is coming out in April. Whether because of the nature of his new music or because of the fact he was premiering songs much of the crowd hadn’t heard, it was less a victorious or momentous closing set, and more a subdued, elegiac coda to the night. (This quality might have been exacerbated by the fact that, due to the schedule having gone slightly awry, Albarn’s set was abridged, which he repeatedly apologized to the audience for.)
At least for this SXSW show, Albarn’s band was comprised of a keyboardist, drummer, guitarist (who some drunken concertgoers mistook for Johnny Marr, despite a plainly evident two decade age difference), a second guitarist/bassist, and four string players. Fittingly, most of the set was populated by Everyday Robots material, which means Albarn was primarily in his moody balladeer mode, switching between sitting down at the piano himself and strumming quietly yearning melodies on an acoustic guitar. The string section’s presence was particularly useful in these songs, allowing Albarn to recreate the aching lead melody of “Everyday Robots,” as well as to replicate the greyed atmospherics of “You & Me” and “Hollow Ponds.” The (maybe accidental) closer of the night was “Mr. Tembo,” one of the only brighter/more uptempo songs from Everyday Robots. Inspired by Albarn meeting a small elephant people called Mr. Tembo, it has a playfulness that allowed Albarn and his band to stretch it out a bit at the end, where the structures of many other Everyday Robots tracks would forbid much improvisation or embellishment. It was still far more understated than, say, seeing Blur close a set with “Tender” or Gorillaz end the night with “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven/Demon Days,” but it established some modicum of finality to the night.
As for the other material, now that The Good, The Bad, And The Queen and Plastic Beach are seven (!) and four years old, respectively, the songs from those records have become the de facto “hits” an audience can latch onto amidst a night comprised of songs they’re hearing for the first time. From the former, there was a mutedly stormy rendition of “Kingdom Of Doom.” From the latter, it was “On Melancholy Hill,” which has a faster pulse than the Everyday Robots stuff, but sonically and tonally sounds like a direct ancestor of Albarn’s newer work. He also threw in two true oldies — the trip-hop-y “Tomorrow Comes Today” from the first Gorillaz album, and a Blur b-side entitled “All Your Life.” “This is a Blur song,” he said in a matter of fact introduction that probably lead people to believe they were about to hear something like the song’s A-side, “Beetlebum.” Even when breathing life to an obscurity that had never been played with Blur themselves, Albarn slips back into something when he brings this song out. There’s a different timbre and pattern to how he uses his voice; he sounds less somber, and more like an old version of himself.
These selections make Albarn’s current set career-spanning, yes, but selectively so: picked from random corners and assembled as little touchstones that fit well alongside the Everyday Robots songs. This, inevitably, makes the show something for more devoted fans — there’s no “Feel Good Inc.” or “Tender” or “Parklife,” and that’s appropriate. Songs such as those would rupture the experience Albarn has stitched together with disparate glimpses of a career that’s now well into its third decade. It wasn’t a cathartic set, but it was moving in a mature and restrained way. It made for good middle-of-the-night music, all whispers and murmurs and distant lilts fading into the cold early morning hours.
[Photo by Nina Corcoran/Stereogum.]