Secret Meeting score: 90
by Phil Scarisbrick
Blackpool is an odd place. Once the pearl at the heart of the UK tourism industry, it has now become a mecca of cheap alcohol and debauched fun. Many of the iconic constructions that drew people by their millions to the Lancashire coast every year still stand. A little weather worn, they exist as monuments to a time before international tourism and economic globalism. It is perhaps no surprise then that the people of Blackpool overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. The result of that vote was one that deeply affected members of The Good, The Bad and The Queen. So much so that they set out to try and work out what caused it. This is how they came to complete much of the writing and pre-production for their new record, Merrie Land, in Blackpool, and tonight they returned to bring the show to the town that birthed it.
The theatre on the North Pier usually hosts the kind of stand up comedians that made their names on the seaside resort circuit. Pictures of the likes of Morecambe & Wise, Jethro and Mick Miller adorn the walls of the venue, but tonight the audience would be treated to something completely different. Lurching onto the stage just after 9pm, the band are already clearly delighted to be there. Launching into the new album’s opening title track, Albarn spends the majority of the time with his toes at the edge of the stage, wide eyed and engaging the audience directly.
They then proceeded to perform Merrie Land in full, giving a new dimension to the record. Gun To The Head transformed from the eerie album set piece, into a sing-a-long call-to-arms akin to The Universal. Following The Great Fire, Albarn invited the audience to leave their seats and come to the front, turning the small theatre into a ball of energy; I’d imagine this venue has never seen anything like it in its near two century existence. As he continued to perform his awkward mime-artist-cum-interpretive-dance routine, his eye liner started to run down his sweat-drenched face to give the appearance of a ‘Droog’ from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Although inadvertent, the evocative image only adds to the performance.
Lady Boston provided one of the most enthralling moments of the night, as the band were accompanied by the Côr y Penrhyn Male Voice Choir. The song had been recorded at Penrhyn Castle in North Wales, with the local choir featuring. Here, they add an emotional undertone to the music that leaves the whole audience moved. While Ribbons – like on the album – adds the more restrained moment and is utterly beautiful.
After a short break, the band return to play several songs from their debut, eponymous record from some twelve years ago. At this point, the gig turns into more of a celebration with the band visibly ecstatic. Albarn’s brief sojourn into the world of ventriloquism – introducing a tracksuit clad Tommy, complete with a Midlands accent – only adds to the traditional pier show vibe of the concert. Closing with their raucous self-titled song, it’s hard to imagine that any band has ever had as much fun as this one had in the preceding 90 minutes.
The Good, The Bad and The Queen are a group that seem to be greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts are pretty special. Tony Allen’s intricate feathering of the drums entwines with Paul Simonon’s meteoric bass sound, with Simon Tong’s guitar adding vibrant colour to allow Damon Albarn to unload with all the vigour we’ve become accustomed to during his various musical guises. The added four piece string section, keys, horns and harmonious vocals make the whole thing truly remarkable.
They may have initially come to Blackpool looking for answers as to the heavy question of how towns like this voted to leave the EU, but what they have found and created is a joyful escapism. Despite Merrie Land’s heavy lyrics, on this wet, cold December evening the North Pier Theatre was filled with nothing but love and happiness.