Damon Albarn killed it last night at the Exit Festival. This is nothing new for Albarn, but it was his first time to perform in Serbia. On a main stage that has had a lot of great performances, it is not easy to set yourself apart. The previous night Rudimental was amazing in their showmanship. Excellent. Just before Albarn came on stage, the Balkan duo 2 Cellos did a masterful job of wooing the crowd with their energetic, ground-spinning performance. Superb. And it didn’t hurt that they spoke Serbo-Croat throughout their time. Bonus. And then Albarn came in and gave a gracious master class for would be entertainers–a how-to perform for performers. In a different league.
Here are 10 keys to killing it on stage like Damon Albarn.
- Draw focus to the art. A great show starts before it starts. Before the show, the stage hands put up a large black sheet with a unique 7-sided geometric shape. More important than the symbol was what it covered up. For this show there wouldn’t be graphics shooting everywhere. Nor would there be overlays of close-ups of the artist and his band with faded crowd shots. With this static backdrop, Albarn shifted attention to those making the music.
- Recruit excellence. The stage hands that set up this show were moving the parts into place. First a quick drum set check. Next, they put the guitars in place and began checking the tuning on each instrument. Both of the guys on this task had to have pitch perfect hearing. Quick checks, small adjustments on the guitars and ukulele, and all was ready. Once the show was going, these guys were running on and off the stage to manage mic and guitar cords, set upright mic stands accidentally tipped. They did their job with excellence. They served well.
- Make music. With great help supporting you, the band was able to focus on making music. If they needed to lose an instrument, they would set it down on the ground. If on the way to some point on the stage and entangled with cords, press on. The stage help would take care of the issues. The bands’ job was to press forward making music. Both fulfilled their role. There was no better-than mentality. On a couple occasions Albarn exchanged a comical glance with a stage hand when tipping a mic stand and dragging a mic along. When he needed a guitar pick and one of the guys comes running with it, he thanked the help while beginning to play.
- Acknowledge the homeland. It was Albarn’s first time in Serbia and he shared that fact and that he was glad to be there. He acknowledged the Danube River and the full moon that was just behind the stage. He shared that he would likely come back. The crowd loved it all. They loved that he knew their place and had some positive feelings toward it.
- Be original. Albarn has done so many different types of music in his career, always creating something new. He played the guitar and piano of course, but he also played the melodica or wind piano. His syncopation, chords, everything was his own.
- Work with the best. The musicians surrounding Albarn were amazing. The Heavy Seas band members have so many accolades and awards among them that it is crazy. These guys were working as individual master performers themselves all night, but always working together. There were times when the guitarists would break off from the front and meet further back on the stage face to face playing their hearts out. Their faces said they were having a blast throughout the night. They played challenging rhythms while dancing around and keeping the whole thing moving forward. Tough and excellent.
- Consume lots of bottled water. Throughout the concert, Albarn used 4 or 5 bottles of water though he never took a drink. Each time he would twist off the top and then shake the water out as far into the crowd as he could fling it. It was like a symbolic gesture that he was there for the crowd rather than the reverse. People get involved when they get wet, but maybe it was his effort to help keep people hydrated so they would be able to finish the show with energy. It was his encouragement to the crowd to keep up.
- Join the crowd. He came into the crowd as far as the microphone cables would allow on a couple of occasions. He let the front row sing along into the mic. He was the only artist on the festival main stage so far that I have seen come across the photo pit to be able to touch the crowd.
- Sing those songs. Some artists hate or even refuse to sing the songs that the crowd knows and is expecting. However, if the show is about the crowd, sing the songs they want to hear. There were multiple examples of this from Albarn, but the crowd erupted, sang full volume, and danced with as full a range of motion as possible when thousands are packed on top of each other when he busted into the Gorillaz’ song Clint Eastwood.
- Play like a band. So this is Albarn’s solo debut, but not really. He has been either the or one of the primary driving creative forces behind his bands Blur and Gorillaz. Though playing under his own name for this tour, he is still playing as part of a band. The balance of the whole is because of the space made for each band member and the choir. They all work together while being their own creative person. This was visible in their solos, movements, and when the band took a bow at the end after the encore with arms on each others’ shoulders. Albarn was a great solo performer last night because he was not alone and he recognized it.