Last November, when Damon Albarn announced that he and Graham Coxon had patched up their differences and were re-forming Blur in its classic arrangement, I was filled with apprehension. The last few years have been packed with members of the old guard re-forming for one final hurrah, and with mixed results. Led Zeppelin’s one-off benefit concert at the O2 suggested that while there was still more than enough vigour in the band, the practicalities of a real, lasting reunion were beyond them. When Richard Ashcroft welcomed Nick McCabe back into The Verve, I expected thrilling sonic fireworks on a par with their best work – instead, I was left sorely disappointed by the meandering, fleeting Forth.
The prospect of Blur re-uniting was a beguiling prospect. In the intervening years since their disbandment, Albarn had circumnavigated the globe with open ears and busy hands, documenting his travels and learnings through multiple musical projects, from the paranoid cartoon hip-hop of Gorillaz, to the lilting, mystical and beautiful Chinese-opera-cum-musical of Monkey: Journey To The West. Coxon, meanwhile, had become increasingly basic and spartan in his musical exploits, releasing a series of good, but not staggeringly so, solo albums, taking in a breadth of influences, but never really showing off the accidental beauty of his guitar-work that previous Blur albums had featured. Alex James, he of champagne bottle, mirror and razor blade, had fled to the countryside, there to busy himself running a farm and making cheese, and writing all about it in a variety of publications. Finally, there was Dave Rowntree: always the quiet one, now the budding politician. It was only in the wave of press interviews given in the weeks leading up to Hyde Park that we were to discover just how busy he had been, with the astute drummer revealing a law degree, solicitor’s training, social work, political activism.
Somehow, from this myriad divergent post-Blur activities, these four pop icons of the nineties were supposed to roll back the years and wind up as a rock band, putting aside their respective priorities for a few months of historic gigs, and the appetising prospect of something more. I was slightly troubled, I must confess, all the more so because in my lengthy study of Blur’s œuvre, nothing had once suggested to me that their varied sonic palette would actually translate to a particularly energetic live performance. Still, I was among the first to commit to their cause, dutifully buying a ticket to their Friday night show in Hyde Park, London.
Hyde Park, Friday lunchtime. The parched field is already filling up; the wafting odours of burger meat, vinegar and hot dogs are already permeating the air; the stage, clumsily bathed in a tangle of lights, electrical cabling and amplifiers. On one side of the central pavilion is draped a map of Greater London; on the other, one of Great Britain. In the latter stages of their career, Blur may have embraced all manner of American and African influences (as borne out in today’s choice of support acts), but here, today, it is clear that the mood is very British, very suburban, very much rooted in the music-hall stomp of Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife. Gangs of the Colchester massif quaff plastic bottles of beer; young people are few and far between.
Before Blur make their long-awaited entrance, we are treated to four hours of wondrous, diverse music, beginning with the cheeky racket of Deerhoof, perennial cult concerns over in the States. Initially, the crowd react ambivalently, unsure of what to make of a sound that is part math rock, part raucous indie, and certainly not fleshed out by discernible lyrics. It is only when frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki begins her wild flailing and dancing, and revels in interacting with other band-members, props and instruments, that the crowd respond with good-natured applause and cheers.
Next up is current chart-merchant Florence And The Machine. Florence Welch looks undeniably stunning in rather floaty, ethnic garb, and her voice is suitably melodramatic and moody, like a more affected, less precious Natasha Khan. The music too bears some resemblance to that of Bat For Lashes, though more sparkly and poppy. Most of the crowd identify her key singles and enact a mass sing-along; I, through my rejection of mainstream radio, remain reasonably unconvinced and oblivious of her fame and hype.
Then, real excitement greets the entrance of Amadou & Mariam, their live reputation cemented by numerous festival appearances. They are predictably charming, and their music creates quite a stir, combining elements of traditional Malian music with circular blasts of funk and the tense friction of the blues. In the crowd, a party is brewing. We love Amadou’s sonorous voice and his inimitable stage persona; we can’t help but be won over by Mariam’s effortless cool; and the couple’s backing band is pretty talented too. Songs new and old sound fresh and immediate, and the guitar solos are pretty spectacular.
Finally, Vampire Weekend, touching down in the UK solely for this performance, deliver a well-paced set, interspersing most of their debut album with a couple of new songs (one of which is really too high-pitched to be the sing-along that Ezra Koenig desires; the other is slightly marred by an over-zealous, bottle-throwing crowd) and old favourite Boston. Musically, they’re inch-perfect; personality-wise, there’s something amiss – but when the frantic riff of A-Punk kicks in, nobody really cares.
Then, at exactly quarter past eight, the crowd goes relatively ape-shit as the pomp and circumstance of The Debt Collector blares over the sound system, and on stroll all four members of Blur, re-united at last. Albarn and Rowntree favour the Andy Murray-baiting Fred Perry polo shirt look; James appears to have walked out of the gutter; as ever, Coxon exudes an understated geeky cool. Almost immediately, with only a few words of introduction, the band breaks into a soaring rendition of debut single She’s So High. From there on, there is very little let-up, as the band deliver spirited and impassioned hit after hit. Alex James’ bass benefits from a good mix on the PA, showing off just how fluid and quick-witted his playing has always been, especially on tracks like Tracy Jacks and Badhead. Coxon’s guitar-work, meanwhile, is blistering, and makes all 55,000 adoring fans realise at once what has been missing from British music during the last ten years. On Girls And Boys, he unleashes a torrent of flange; on There’s No Other Way, he alternates between the bluesy melody and a crazed wash of feedback and distortion.
By the time the seventh song, Beetlebum, stammers in on a jerky rhythm of guitar stabs, it is clear that, far from sounding flat, tied down to backing tracks, or trying to educate the crowd with a selection of arty album tracks, Blur seem newly re-invigorated, more energetic and meaningful than before, and perfectly content to roll out the hits, be they emotionally leering (as in the case of Country House, still as ridiculous as ever) or reflective (like Coxon’s still-charming Coffee & TV). Each song is delivered with real feeling and maximum crowd reaction: in the case of Tender, the gospel-tinged and emotionally raw anthem is transformed into a slightly ironic terrace-chant, as 55,000 people celebrate the tragedy of lyrics like “Oh my baby, oh my baby; Oh why, oh why?” and “Come on, come on, come on; get through it!” So many of Blur’s greatest songs are nostalgic and heartfelt in a rather doomed and miserable way, but tonight, it would appear that we are just as happy to revel in unbearable sadness as we are to sing for hedonistic youths on holiday in Greece.
There are a few surprise inclusions too – Trimm Trabb is as squalling and experimental as ever, and collapses in extraordinary style amidst a trademark Coxon guitar meltdown; Oily Water starts out as a slightly baggy-influenced pop song but builds into a wall of shoegaze, all shimmering guitars and wailing backing vocals. After the main set concludes with the breathtaking, heart-wrenching This Is A Low (still my favourite song of the Britpop époque), the band kickstart the first encore with the dual assault of Popscene and Advert, both coming off successfully as breakneck punk numbers. Perhaps thankfully, the crowd having already battered each other to oblivion during Parklife and Sunday Sunday, Song 2 is appreciated mainly aurally, despite the band’s most famous two minutes and two seconds of alt-rock swagger being played in characteristically violent, cock-sure style.
A final encore showcases all three sides of the band: first, underground fan favourite Death Of A Party chugs along in chilling, carnival-esque art rock fashion. Then, basking in the warm summer night of London, an extended version of For Tomorrow is supplemented by a brass trio and a gospel quartet (both groups flit on and off the stage throughout the evening, adding texture and emotion to many of the band’s songs) that depicts perfectly the way in which so much of the band’s raison d’être is rooted in a Kinks-ian vision of British idyll. Finally, the stately and suitably tragic The Universal finishes off a wonderful and emotional evening on a cascade of strings, brass, fretboard fireworks and those dread-future lyrics, hinting at a doomed utopia.
Throughout the gig, Albarn’s banter with the crowd sums up perfectly the mood of the band and their music. By turns witty, emotional and anecdotal, I’m sure his words are lost on at least half of the crowd. But in those gem-like nuggets of conversation, he reveals his love of the city, his fears about the future, and his essential attachment to this brilliant band who, among many things, provided the template of the perfect pop song throughout much of my youth. There is no doubt that there are live bands who employ more trickery; who create more of a visual spectacle; or who engage the audience in an enveloping fug of sonic experimentation – indeed, I have witnessed many such gigs. However, for a truly historic gig that released the inner punk spirit in thousands of thirty-somethings, and touched the hearts of many thousands more, Blur did not need all these gimmicks of their contemporaries. Throughout their career they have written an arsenal of great songs, and at many times these have been fashioned into extraordinary albums, but here, on stage, it is the ubiquity of them – in a similar way to the hits of Michael Jackson – that wins us over. Here are the songs that have documented life in the nineties, brought to life before our eyes, in another decade, but still just as relevant, and just as fantastic. To echo the sentiments of Damon Albarn, I thank every music industry mind who hassled and cajoled and teased Albarn and Coxon into giving into their better interests, and re-forming one of the great songwriting partnerships in British history. It was a blast.