Monday was supposed to be “chores day”. Instead, it became Blur Day. Just after half-past eleven, I heard NME Radio talk about 170 secret gig tickets being handed out at Brixton Academy. No chance, I thought. Then I realised that once on board a train, I could get there in under 40 minutes, and if it’d only just been announced… an hour later, I was in the SW9 sunshine, and fifteen minutes after that, I’d had a wristband attached to me. I was in.
I had mixed feelings about the Blur reunion when it was announced, but my doubts had been soothed after their first comeback show on Saturday had been warmly reviewed. Which was a good thing, because last December I’d bellowed “count me in!” as soon as a pal announced he was getting tickets for the Hyde Park shows. Well, I had to make sure I saw this for myself, didn’t I?
The gig was at Rough Trade East record shop on Brick Lane, and was luckily timed for almost the exact length of a thunderstorm which lashed the streets outside with rain. My big worry was that it’d be 170 wristband holders plus 100 freeloaders; but it turned out that hangers-on had been kept to a minimum and there were only a handful of journalists there. In any case, this was the first time anyone had seen them for years. In my case, since the Alexandra Palace show in October 1994 (support acts: Corduroy, Supergrass and Pulp.)
The first thing that struck me was how much older they looked. Mind you, half the crowd could say the same about themselves too. Graham Coxon even looks a bit rugged these days, a far cry from his days as a fixture in Camden pubs. But Damon Albarn’s smile is unmistakable, and Alex James’s grin/sneer looks 15 years younger than the rest of him. “We love you Dave!”, a woman piped up at drummer Dave Rowntree. Albarn creased up with laughter. The boys were back in town – with no hint of the animosities that had cursed their later years.
Opening track She’s So High sounded as creepily intense as it did in the early 1990s, and with Girls and Boys the new Blur revealed themselves to be a tighter outfit than before. The gig was held to promote the release of new compilation Midlifeand was being filmed, so there was little chat – but it wasn’t needed with a sumptuous, languid version of For Tomorrow, followed by End of A Century and Modern Life Is Rubbish track Advert. Beetlebum really rolled back the years – as fresh as it was more than a decade ago.
As I said, it’d been 15 years since I’d last seen Blur live, so it was the first time I’d heard many of these songs live – Tender was spellbinding, with false endings and a crowd backing that made me wonder why they’d ever stuck that choir on in the first place. This should have been cheesy and embarrassing, but it wasn’t – it felt like a triumphant lap of honour for a band reminding us of the brilliance of their back catalogue. Out of Time continued the downbeat theme, until a frenzied lurch into Popscene – Midlifesees its first outing on a Blur album – gets the crowd pogoing, Albarn lobbing water everywhere and diving into the crowd. Song 2 carried the mood on.
He donned outsized glasses for Parklife, which had an “it’s OK to like Britpop again” feel of release about it – while closing track This Is A Low was a reminder of what great songwriters Blur were, and may still be. The lights went up with the crowd wanting more – they’ll get it at Glastonbury, and at Hyde Park in coming weeks.
It’s a cliche to compare Blur with one-time foes Oasis, but the comparison is instructive, especially since few of their mid-1990s contemporaries have survived to the end of the following decade. While the Gallaghers’ band have been a lumbering national embarassment for some time now; Blur are trimmer than ever, all now 40 or over but comfortable with their past and revelling in the memories. Will they go on to record new material? It’s not as if they need to – they’ve all got other projects, and Alex James has joined New Order side project Bad Lieutenant. Oasis, meanwhile, still seem to be flogging themselves to death.
For now, though, we can celebrate the fact that one of Britain’s best bands is back – and it was an absolute treat to see them up close. Hopefully they’ll be as good in the park…