Tea, cake and Brexit: What happened when Damon Albarn played a 200-capacity Geordie social club
Damon Albarn and his side-project The Good, The Bad and The Queen have been playing small gigs in working mens' clubs in England's North East. Here's what happened on the final night.
"Have you tried the Victoria Sponge?"
"You really must have some cake."
"Here, let me get you a slice."
No, we're not in a scene from Father Ted. We're at the soundcheck for a rock show where, in accordance with Damon Albarn's demands, a supply of freshly-made, locally-sourced baked goods has been laid out on a trestle table.
"Tea and cake is a very important part of the day," he explains. "It's good to have a sense of routine when you're on tour."
But this tour is a tour unlike other tours. After playing the world's enormodromes with Gorillaz last year; Albarn has arranged a series of low-key dates in working mens' clubs with his London-based super group.
Tonight, we're at the Cullercoats Crescent Club in Tyneside – an unassuming but friendly venue whose wood-framed windows give an uninterrupted view of the North Sea's choppy grey waters.
The manager had to cancel a line-dancing night to accommodate Albarn and his band; but fans can still enter a £1 meat raffle as they enter the venue.
"It's like playing in somebody's very large living room," observes bassist Paul Simonon, formerly of The Clash.
"It's nice for people to be able to see our faces – and for us to see their faces."
"It's been deep," says Albarn, who's been moved at the response to these small-scale shows.
"It's good to tune into the music on that level. It gives you great knowledge of what it is you have for when you take it to a bigger environment."
The music in question is called Merrie Land – a meditation on modern Britain that's both an affectionate elegy to the countryside and its traditions; and a post-Brexit break-up letter.
"If you're leaving please still say goodbye," sings Albarn on the title track. "And if you are leaving can you leave me my silver jubilee mug/ My old flag/My dark woods/My sunrise."
The singer admits he was blindsided by the UK's decision to leave the EU in 2016; and has spent the last two years trying to get his head around the implications.
"I felt bizarrely, in my own insignificant way, partly responsible for it," he says.
"The shock I felt that morning [of the referendum result] was indicative of the blasé attitude that we, as Remainers, had felt prior to that day.
"There was a massive and patronising assumption that the rest of the country felt the way we did. So that was my lesson."
A thoughtful lyricist at the best of times, the vote inspired Albarn to wander the UK, visiting small, overlooked communities, drinking tea in pubs, catching buses and meditating on the ribbons that bind Britain together.
"I'm not saying the album's the result of years of exhaustive in-depth interviews and in situ consultation," he says. "But it's my impressions as I traverse the country in the frame of mind of a pilgrimage."
Albarn has described the record as a "soul version of [Blur's] Parklife" but it has none of that album's ironic detachment; channelling the mournful spirit of This Is A Low over the argy-bargy humour of Girls & Boys.
Musically, it's haunted by the ghosts of Britain's past – from the chirpy organ of the music hall, to off-key pub pianos and the dub basslines imported by the Windrush generation. But there's also a sense of optimism for the people's spirit.
"Absolutely. That's the thing. It exists in both camps, mournful and optimistic, which is an interesting proposition for a record."
Albarn has no illusions about changing people's minds with music: "Whether it can achieve anything is obviously … pffft," he sighs, running out of steam mid-sentence.
Instead, the idea was to rekindle a conversation that had been snuffed out.
"We lost the ability to talk between the tribes," says Albarn. "So that's the hope: That after all this crap we've been through, we can actually ask each other the meaningful questions – Who are we? And what do we want to become?"
That's why The Good, The Bad and The Queen are here in North Shields, preparing to "explore these messages" with an audience who wouldn't always be the first in the queue for one of their shows.
As the queue gathers outside, the band – which also features The Verve's Simon Tong and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen – gather under the polystyrene roof tiles for a soundcheck.
Albarn rearranges album track The Great Fire on the fly, upping the tempo and asking Tong to drop out of the final chorus to make space for a melodica solo.
Later, the group rehearse the intro to Merrie Land a dozen or so times; referencing the CD as they attempt to replicate the tricky, syncopated rhythm of the opening bars.
To be honest, it's still a bit shaky when they play it for the audience; but the group soon settle into a groove, while Albarn climbs the security barriers and leans precariously into the crowd.
The songs are more bloody and visceral in a live setting – and while the political nuance of the lyrics might be lost on an audience unfamiliar with the material, the sense of urgency when Albarn pounds his piano in The Last Man To Leave is unshakeable.
"Thanks for being so lovely to us," says Albarn as the show ends. "You've been unbelievably friendly."
The shows have gone so well, in fact, that he intends to replicate them in the New Year.
"We asked the president of the Teignmouth Working Mens' Club and he has 150 affiliates who he'll put in a good word with," says the star. "So I'd like to think in the future we could follow this up.
"It'd be a bit weird if we just went off to America to play Coachella."
Playing these out-of-the-way venues has even inspired some new songs, "a few observations and a few bits of music inspired by the waves and the wind towers".
But for now, the Cullercoats Crescent Club will have to go back to its regularly-programmed schedule of folk music, line-dancing and Johnny Cash cover bands.
There isn't even any cake left.
"I always wonder why I put on weight on tour," says the sound engineer, polishing off the last few crumbs.
Follow us on Facebook, on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts, or on Instagram at bbcnewsents. If you have a story suggestion email email@example.com.
- More on The Good, The Bad and The Queen
- BBC Music homepage
- BBC Music News LIVE