Standing in the middle of Webster Hall before The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s March 12 performance, I found myself impressed with and yet slightly puzzled by the buzz surrounding the night’s show. Sure, Damon Albarn has evolved into a sort of a musical impresario, and yes, the band’s lineup is filled out with ex-members of the Verve (guitarist Simon Tong), the Clash (bassist Paul Simonon), and Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 (drummer Tony Allen), but isn’t The Good, the Bad & the Queen a pretty depressing record? You’d think it unlikely that so many people would gather with such fervor to listen to a band whose sound can’t be described without using the words “melancholy” and “defeated.” But these are the times we live in, and these are the times that The Good, the Bad & the Queen speaks to.
As the lights dimmed, three violinists, barely visible to the audience, played the band onto the stage. Albarn, wearing a top hat possibly stolen from the set of The Prestige, and Simonon appeared to a great ovation, the kind that’s equal parts excitement and reverence, only reserved for true legends. In the background hung a large, fittingly dreary painting of an urban landscape (London, most likely). Opening with “History Song” and “’80s Life,” the band sounded crisp from the start, quickly laying to rest any doubt that they’d be able to successfully recreate their dub-heavy sound live. There wasn’t much on display in the way of charisma-only Simonon showed any enthusiasm, which is especially remarkable considering that he’s fifty-one-but, in the band members’ defense, their energy was reflective of the songs they were performing. Still, it was a little disappointing.
The best thing about this band (which does not carry a name; according to Albarn, “The Good, the Bad & the Queen” only refers to the album) is that despite the considerable talents of the musicians involved, all are careful not to overwhelm the sound with his own considerable talents. Simon Tong might have the demeanor of a CPA, but in a project like this, he blends in well.
The set was uniformly impressive, with the highlights being “History Song” and “Herculean,” which really comes into its own live. Albarn even cracked a smile during a satisfyingly chaotic version of “Three Changes,” showing everyone that, yes, he was enjoying himself. Fans hoping for a dub version of “Beetlebum” or “Guns of Brixton” undoubtedly came away a little disappointed, though; the encore consisted only of two unreleased tracks, one of which featured an awkward cameo by a Syrian rapper. The night ended abruptly, with Albarn and company walking off stage at the count of four in a manner he’d described to the crowd four seconds prior.
Was it the most engaging performance I’ve ever seen? No, not by a stretch, but opportunities to see musicians like these at the top of their game are few and far between; when they do come around, you have to take what you can get, and what the Webster Hall audience got was more than good enough.