When Damon Albarn staged his opera, Monkey: Journey to the West, at the inaugural Manchester International Festival back in 2007, it’s fair to say the city was still in the grips of Gallagherism.
From the pubs and bars to the haircuts hovering through them, it felt like the city was stuck in a comfortable resting place, a sort of cultural holding pattern.
When Liam and Noel – in another cultural city apparently called Paris – decided to call it a day, it set Manchester free, and allowed the place as a whole to enjoy things like a ‘festival of culture’ without irony or awkwardness. Fading away was the fear of bumping into your five-a-side team as you came out of La Boheme.
Albarn has dropped in periodically since – in 2009, 2011 and 2015 – providing a comforting and encouraging presence for a changing city, like your mum’s boyfriend who introduces you to Townes Van Zandt and says that if you want to be ballet director then you can be.
He has always had an elastic and unshackled approach to music, and reflected that in the musicians he surrounds himself with.
Tonight, his band is made up of long-time collaborator and former member of The Verve, Simon Tong on guitar, two drummers – one of whom trained both at Trinity College and with Tony Allen at weekends – and a string quartet.
Add to that an unshakeable bassist and a keyboard player with a saxophone round his neck and you’ve essentially got the keys to the sweet shop.
The set begins with a chain of songs from Albarn’s new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. This is the mode of music I feel he’s most associated with currently; melancholy, operatic and yet acutely British, the sound of the warm, suffocating embrace of an island nation.
When he explains the concept of the album came from watching the nighttime lights of a distant cruise ship from his Devon home, it speaks to the unmoored and uncertain state that is England today, with Albarn and co as the house band.
When he’s not soundtracking the demise of a nation, the sense of fun that made his name returns, especially in the variation on Royal Morning Blue, made propulsive and infectious by the sublime rhythm section. Nature Springs, and the Tony Allen track Go Back display that joyful strain of Afrobeat that seems to have changed him for good around 2002’s travels in Morocco and Mali.
Already a pretty loose individual, he’s loosened further by what looks like a G&T, and is clearly enjoying the company of a crowd.
Anecdotes about Cliff Richard’s restart of Country Road one syllable in, an encounter with that other one-syllable word, Michael Gove, and a call and response through the seven chakras, gives the audience a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous.
He reveals his musical MO – “I’m interested in finding ‘ambiguous tonalities’. It started by accident and now I do it on purpose” – before Polaris hums into life.
Finally, and with the kind of contextual on-the-nosery that even Martin Amis would sniff at, they end with This is a Low, “and into the sea / goes pretty England and me”, an unavoidable choice of anthem for a country that went from world-beating to tag-wearing overnight.
Before too long, Manchester will have more cultural spaces than you can shake a beret at, and I feel that growth was catalysed by the MIF, which in turn was made distinct and legitimate by the likes of Damon Albarn.
While we’ll always have a place in our hearts for the Gallaghers, Albarn’s contributions to the MIF have helped make Manchester something more in his own image; interesting, eclectic, and international.