“The band salute the crowd and as we leave the Dad’s Army theme drifts from the speakers. Another moment of weird confusion. It seems perfect for 2018.” We went to see The Good, The Bad & The Queen at EartH, Hackney.
This is strange. Damon Albarn is on stage controlling a ventriloquist dummy and doing a (very good, it must be confessed) Wolverhampton accent. “Hello, my name’s Tommy.” The impression goes on for several minutes. He tells the crowd he loves them. “We bloody love you too,” someone in the audience shouts back but there’s an air of confusion in the room about what’s going on. Damon quickly wraps things up. “Well, that was quite a strange experience,” he mutters before the band launch into ‘80’s Life’, Damon controlling the puppet to look like it’s singing.
“Albarn’s career has been a lifelong exploration into the essence of Britishness.“
Even in a year that makes no sense this seems strange. But maybe that’s the point. Albarn’s career has been a lifelong exploration into the essence of Britishness. His ‘supergroup’ got back together after 11 years away to make Merrie Land, a concept album that continues that quest, exploring Brexit, how false nostalgia hides and distorts a true vision of British identity and how decisions are being made by people in power who don’t have the best interests of the public at heart. They “jeer at us all because they don’t care about us. They are graceless and you shouldn’t be with them,” as he sings on the title track.
Depending on your point of view Albarn passionately loves and celebrates this British way of life or mistakenly and patronisingly mocks the people he sings about and claims to celebrate. Tonight, it feels like it’s love. “This is not rhetoric, it comes from my heart,” he also sings on ‘Merrie Land’. After low-key gigs in Blackpool and Tyneside – the places that inspired the album and where it was written – tonight he’s back in London and there’s a celebratory air.
The band play Merrie Land in full, with a backdrop of a pier front and up-lit with the band’s shadows while eerie ventriloquist dolls stare dead-eyed out at the audience. On record, Merrie Land often feels dark, autumnal and claustrophobic but here it feels jubilant and exultant. Paul Simonon shimmies across the stage, dressed in a pinstripe suit and flat cap and Tony Allen is imperious, though more metronomic than propulsive.
There’s also more drama in Albarn’s performance: he pretends to beckon a dog during ‘Gun to the Head’ as the crowd sing along to the “We are all animal lovers” chorus. And during ‘Nineteen Seventeen’ he spins theatrically across the stage as he sings “And we waltzed around the world, as though we were off our heads.”
“it’s the most danceable song featuring a penny whistle you’re likely to hear”
He’s obviously enjoying himself. He repeatedly punches the air and does his hands-aloft-middle-distance-staring look that he’s perfected. As starts ‘Lady Boston’ he asks the crowd to fill in for the male voice choir from the record who have day jobs and can’t be here tonight. “There’s a lot of you,” he acknowledges as he leads them in a signature ‘La la la la’ crescendo. ‘Drifters and Trawlers’ is treated like an old favourite already, as he introduces Gerry (“He’s an accredited penny whistle player. Nothing but the best for you.”) – it’s the most danceable song featuring a penny whistle you’re likely to hear and the lines “Throw away your fears, Throw away the nets, And throw away the past” feel like they capture what’s at the heart of the album.
The encore sees the band return to their debut. Eleven years on and ‘History Song’ and ‘Kingdom of Doom’ still sound like some of the best songs he’s written, while both ‘The Changes’ and the self-titled song show that when they lock into a groove they are riotously good fun. Hearing all these songs together it feels like a soundtrack to a beautiful but crumbling Britain, like the shipping forecast regions that plot the landmarks of Blur’s magnum opus, ‘This Is A Low’. The band salute the crowd and as we leave the Dad’s Army theme drifts from the speakers. Another moment of weird confusion. It seems perfect for 2018.
Photo Credit: Stars Redmond