York Minster provides a perfect foil to Damon Albarn's hauntingly beautiful performance

As a teenager, Damon Albarn honed his piano-playing skills on a parish church's organ in his native Essex.

Damon Albarn and his accompanying string quartet are pictured at the end of his second performance at York Minster. (Photo: Paul Jeeves)
Damon Albarn and his accompanying string quartet are pictured at the end of his second performance at York Minster. (Photo: Paul Jeeves)

But his weekly Saturday morning practise sessions were cut short when the vicar discovered him opting to play The Stranglers’ Golden Brown instead of traditional hymns.

It was perhaps fitting, then, that the Blur frontman chose the setting of York Minster to launch a mini-tour to promote his latest solo album, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows.

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As he took to the stage below the cathedral’s recently-restored organ, Albarn gazed at the stone statues of medieval kings that adorn the quire screen, seeking a moment of inspiration from the ancient place of worship’s famous Gothic architecture.

Perched behind a jet black grand piano and accompanied by a string quartet, Albarn’s haunting vocals from his new album seemed to have a perfect symmetry with the Minster’s stunning setting.

After a fitting intro of In The Bleak Midwinter given the freezing temperatures which the 1,400-strong audience had endured while queuing outside, Albarn began the hour-long set with the title track to his new release.

He then embarked on some of the highlights from the album, which he says was a cathartic response to the storm clouds that have gathered in the wake of the pandemic.

The Cormorant was followed by Royal Morning Blue and Daft Wader, and the beautiful refrain of Darkness to Light was a glorious moment while echoing around the Minster’s vast arched ceilings.

It took four songs before Albarn spoke to the audience, but his understated performance was still punctuated with his famous stage charisma.

He recounted the first time he played York with Blur back in 1990 at The Duchess, when his announcement that his band were from London was met with typical Yorkshire nonchalance followed by a heckle suggesting they should be heading back to the capital sooner rather than later.

There can be no denying that his latest audience in the city was far more receptive to his performance, and it was the climax of the set which was to feature four songs from Blur’s back catalogue.

The unmistakable guitar riff to the opening of Beetlebum was beautifully recreated by the cellist on stage, and was followed by Lonely Press Play from Albarn’s debut solo album, Everyday Robots.

He reverted back to Blur for the final three songs of the set, with My Terracotta Heart and Under The Westway both emphatic points in the art of Albarn’s song-writing.

The traditional finale of a Blur gig was mirrored in the Minster, with Albarn allowing the audience to sing the final chorus of The Universal as he stood on stage looking out across the masked crowd in the cathedral’s nave.

Ahead of the gig, Albarn had claimed his duo of performances at the Minster could be among the most treasured in his career dating back 33 years.

And that prediction could not have rung truer for those lucky enough to have witnessed a very special moment in the Minster’s long history.