How big is Damon Albarn in America? It’s a question that comes up unusually often at the EW offices, partly because we suspect that the answer will disappoint us.
Obviously people know of the man’s work, but mostly in a backwards sort of way. In terms of Stateside popularity, his multiplatinum animated rap group Gorillaz far eclipses Blur, the legendary Britpop act he fronted for more than a decade — though even they have a mainstream foothold thanks to their alt-radio hit “Girls and Boys” and the woo-hoo anthem “Song 2.”
But Albarn himself never really became a household name in the U.S. It doesn’t help that his strongest work — those early Blur records, considered classics across the pond — was very deeply and decidedly British, literally by design. But now that he’s got his debut solo album (out in April) to promote, it’s natural to wonder whether his name alone can lure a large American audience.
According to his SXSW set at the Fader Fort on Friday, he can — with a little help from his friends. The annual event’s east-of-center venue was packed for Albarn’s performance, but since the bill promised he’d have “special guests” with him, fans were able to deduce that they’d get to see either Blur or Gorillaz play live. They got the latter: Del the Funkee Homosapien, De La Soul, Dan the Automator, and Snoop Dogg each had a chance to hop on stage and bring the cartoon group’s trippy songs to life.
Albarn was still able to make his mark, however. He started the night with a batch of solo cuts from his upcoming Everyday Robots, though he did attach a disclaimer. “We’re gonna play quite a lot of new music,” Albarn warned, “but we’re also gonna play some old stuff as well, so don’t panic!” He wasn’t kidding; the first six songs in his set were all new tracks from Robots, most of them low-key and piano-laden.
But the mood changed considerably on the seventh song, the poppy Gorillaz single “Melancholy Hill,” and Albarn made sure to keep the ball rolling. “I’d like to invite some very old friends of mine onto the stage,” he announced as NYC hip-hop trio De La Soul took the stage to perform their Demon Days hit “Feel Good Inc.” Audience participation spiked tenfold.
The set dipped back into non-Gorillaz tracks for a spell, and the old Blur B-side “All Your Life” even managed to sneak into the lineup. The biggest treat, however, was saved for the end: Del, Dan, and Snoop teaming up with Albarn for a blow-out performance of “Clint Eastwood.”
“We’ve never performed this song in its purest form ever, and we may never perform it again ever,” Albarn said, referring to the track’s original collaborators. The audience ate it up, vigorously bopping their heads in sync.
Once the song ended and all the musicians cleared the stage, the riled-up crowd loudly demanded an encore — but not necessarily from the headliner. Fans started shouting “Snooooop!” in hopes that the rapper might come back out for more. He didn’t, and neither did Albarn.