Gig review: Damon Albarn at York Minster

The journey that brought Damon Albarn to York began with him gazing out at coldly beautiful Icelandic landscapes, where the beginnings of a solo record began to take shape as lockdown loomed.

Damon Albarn. Picture: Linda Brownlee
Damon Albarn. Picture: Linda Brownlee

Appropriately, it’s an Arctic December night when - thanks to the combined ingenuity of the promoters from York’s The Crescent, Leeds’s Brudenell Social Club and Crash Records - the sometime Blur and Gorillaz frontman sits down at his piano in the candlelit heart of the Minster for the second of two sold-out solo shows in this most remarkable of venues.

Albarn’s secret weapon tonight are his string quartet, who open the show by filling the shadowy nave’s vast acoustics with In The Bleak Midwinter. As reverb chambers go, a centuries-old Gothic cathedral is hard to beat. As a backdrop, it elicits a “wow!” from a man who’s played a few big rooms in his time. Though as he explains, he began his musical career playing the organ in the village church - until he got busted practising The Stranglers’ not-entirely-godly Golden Brown.

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The solo album behind Albarn’s intimate tour of unlikely venues, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows – titled after a John Clare poem – is a slow-burn collection of low-key songs and sounds, evoking loss and uncertainty, troubled seascapes and landscapes.

Live, the songs take on sharper focus and the beauty of the piano parts and melody lines comes to the fore. With the string players carving out intricate harmonies, Daft Wader shines in this set up, Royal Morning Blue is a signature Albarn melody, while Darkness To Light is the song that lingers in your ears afterwards. That instantly-familiar voice is comfortably settled into its lived-in low register and for all the melancholy in the lyrics, the songs have a warm heart and the singer seems a man at ease, charismatic but humble.

The new album is such a self-contained and personal set that you half expect the show to end straight after Particles, with no mention of the back catalogue. You don’t for example imagine he’s going to suddenly bellow “Parklife!”. But delightfully, the cellist starts up the opening riff for a reworked Beetlebum, and we also get a tour through Blur’s swansong Under The Westway, and finally, The Universal takes a stately waltz around the Minster’s arches.

A truly unique event – and all the more valuable with Covid again growling at the gates. But it really, really, really did happen.