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The Good, The Bad & The Queen live at the Blackpool North Pier
1 December 2018
Reviewed by The Guardian

Albarn rages, but things might just get better

Photo by Tony Woolliscroft
Photo by Tony Woolliscroft.

Damon Albarn jabs a finger at Brexit Britain’s divisions but the show turns bawdily riotous and, with the help of a male voice choir, inspirational

Away from the Golden Sands and kiss-me-quick hats, Blackpool – with its faded glamour, devastating poverty and austerity, and where 67% voted to leave the EU – is startlingly emblematic of the problems and divisions facing modern Britain. Thus, a rehearsal room here was the starting point (in 2017) for The Good, The Bad & the Queen’s new, second album, Merrie Land, in which Damon Albarn, the polymathic songwriter who once soundtracked Cool Britannia with Blur’s Britpop colossus, Parklife, attempts to make sense of post-referendum Brexit Britain.

After low-key gigs in similarly pro-Brexit North Tyneside, this beautiful old Victorian theatre makes the perfect setting to hear the album in its entirety, yards from the Merrie England bar that inspired its title, and with Albarn animatedly leaping around what he calls a “hallowed” stage, which was graced by the likes of Tommy Cooper in more prosperous times.

Merrie Land – with its eerie, Specials/fairground Wurlitzer-type whirl, English folk, post-Windrush-dub bass from ex-Clash man Paul Simonon and distant echoes of 90s Blur’s more melancholy moments – is beautiful and elegiac. However, Albarn sings the hard-hitting title track while literally jabbing a finger at the uneasy alliance between the working classes who felt abandoned and the expensively educated Brexiteers, who “don’t care about us / They are graceless and you shouldn’t be with them”.

The terrific dub-waltz of Nineteen Seventeen sees Britain’s colonial past held responsible for the seeds of our malaise. Yet this gig is anything but downbeat. Albarn punches the air triumphantly, the crowd bawl Gun to the Head and Drifters and Trawlers like music hall singalongs, and jaws drop when a curtain falls to reveal the massed ranks of the Côr y Penrhyn male voice choir, who sing Lady Boston’s coda, “Dwi wrth dy gefn, dwi wth dy gefen di” (“We’re all in this together”) with stirring Welsh passion.

TGTBATQ’s multigenerational, multiracial line up is a statement itself: a 78-year-old Nigerian drummer (Fela Kuti legend Tony Allen), Brixton bassist Simonon and Lancastrian guitarist (Simon Tong), here augmented by brass and an all-women strings section.

And for all the songs’ litany of care homes, alcoholism, ghost towns and fly tippers, they tap into a sense that more unites us than divides us. Albarn sings The Poison Tree beautifully, but otherwise the atmosphere is ever more bawdy and riotous.

“Everybody stand up and move to the front”, suggests Albarn. The resulting stampede means he spends the rest of the night shaking hands with fans in the front rows. “I’m reliably informed my mascara has run,” hoots the Colchester man, singing with black goo rolling down his face. After a short interlude, songs from TGTBATQ’s eponymous debut feature the singer eulogising Blackpool’s past (“Ken Dodd!”), singing with a ventriloquist’s dummy (“Tommy”) and eventually ending up in the male voice choir. Somewhere in this moving, amusing and ultimately inspiring evening there’s the flicker of hope that things will get better.

star star star star  (4/5) Dave Simpson

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