Music industry insider Victoria Wyatt gets up close and on stage with Damon Albarn at the Cavea on 15 July
First of all, if you haven't seen a show at The Cavea, the open-air theatre within the Auditorium Parco della Musica complex, try to get to a concert there before the end of the month as it is truly a magical space. Essentially it is the smallest most sound-perfect amphitheatre you will ever have the pleasure of watching anyone perform in.
With a capacity of only 3,000, the view from every seat is as clear as a position in the front row – not that you will actually have time to sit in them because as soon as the concert starts people rush forward, and without even the hint of a barrier between the stomachs of the people at the front and the side of stage, it makes for perfectly intimate shows - and very easy stage climbing as will be demonstrated later in the article.
Damon Albarn has long been the epitome of what music is all about. He is famous for his body of work and not his name alone, he remains creative and unrestrained in an industry famous for restricting artists, and he is a master at pulling together a room – whether it be in front of 200,000 or 2,000. The man follows his heart and his art and wherever he goes a huge amount of the rest of us follow.
His debut solo exploration Everyday Robots, the first album to appear with his actual name stamped on the front, is exceptional. It's a relatively quiet album that sneaks up on listeners who initially may be a little disappointed in its distinct lack of raucous “Blurness” but will find themselves humming the addictively sweet Mr Tembo and falling in love with the rest of sleepily melodic tracks in no time.
Albarn's show at The Cavea on 15 July was a fan's and musician's delight. Always the effervescent showman (while simultaneously seeming ready to curl up with a hot cup of tea in a giant comfy armchair), Albarn danced, swaggered and cheerfully chatted his way through an hour and a half of tracks that covered both the intimate feel of his new album and a handful of favourites from Blur and Gorillaz.
Although billed as a solo show, from the opening number Lonely Press Play, a deliciously toned-down song with a very slow reggae beat, it was in fact anything but. "We are the Heavy Seas", repeatedly stated by Albarn, suggests that he may have found a band that will stick with him past the current tour. The bassist's cool factor and dance moves alone were a magical addition, and the six back-up singers provided choir-like harmonies that would have lifted the ceiling had their been one. The tracks often rolled into one another, swinging easily from Gorillaz numbers such as Tomorrow Comes Today, Slow Country and Kids With Guns to the newer songs and back, with just a small sprinkling of Blur tracks (Out of Time and End of a Century) which of course were fan favourites.
Even a track from Rocket Juice and the Moon (band name and album title for the musical supergroup consisting of Albarn, Flea and Tony Allen) made an appearance, at which point Albarn welcomed Ghanaian singer Manifest onto the stage. The whole evening seemed very collaborative, highlighting different band members, back-up singers and even the trumpet-playing son of the first person Albarn met "when I went to Iceland in 1997".
The cheerfully humble Albarn chatted it up in songbreaks, exclaiming how "Rome is very popular and very hot in summer" which unfortunately meant he couldn't see as much as he wanted on his treasured day out 'n about because of the "mad queues". He marvelled at the typical Roman sight of Indian buskers who appear to be holding their co-worker above their heads for hours, with what Albarn would like to believe was just "brute strength", and we even learnt about his family trips to Lago Trasimeno 33 years ago – the first place he kissed a girl, back in the day "when you couldn't take a girl to the beach without her brother coming along".
Unlike at Blur concerts where the vocals and band are almost drowned by the cacophony of audiences singing, both the venue and the newness of many of these songs allowed for complete focus on the melodies, arrangements and pitch-perfect vocals. Undoubtedly the highlight for at least a couple of hundred people occurred towards the end of Gorillaz favourite Clint Eastwood during the encore, when Albarn pulled one girl up onto the stage - which the rest of the people at his knees took as a cue to join him, swamping him and the band for a good ten minutes... all while they attempted to finish the song with some degree of clarity.
Rarely do audiences get a visual insight into Albarn's musical mastery – as in Blur and Gorillaz shows he focuses almost completely on vocals and jumping higher than men in their mid-forties should be able – but with his solo shows fans are treated to his playing not only of guitar, but also the melodica, and piano playing worthy of a concert pianist. Seeing the man swing between all of his parts and roles, with such an inspiring and creative band as The Heavy Seas behind him, was a wonderful, wonderful thing.