Are we coming towards the end of Blur? Damon Albarn’s indecisive stance on the future of the band sparked an urgent need to see them live in my good friend and long time Blur fan Alex – and though I’ve never followed the band particularly obsessively myself, it didn’t take much convincing for me to plan on coming along with her. After agonising over the lack of tickets to their Hyde Park show and making vague plots to go to Way Out West in Sweden, a much easier option presented itself in the form of a series of intimate warm-up shows in England. The Civic Hall in Wolverhampton proved to be our best bet – tickets were acquired, travel plans were made, and now, here we stand, on Sunday 5th August, a mere seven days before the band’s Olympic closing ceremony show. The gig hadn’t really been at the forefront of my mind until about a week or so before, at which point I started going through the band’s back catalogue and actually got quite excited about the show in the process.
As such, it would be easy to overlook the support act at tonight’s gig, but frighteningly youthful LA duo The Bots prove to be a pleasant surprise. Playing a short, energetic set of their thrashed-out garage/grunge hybrid, they basically sound like The White Stripes hopped up on E-numbers. 15-year old drummer Anaiah puts in a performance that could put musicians twice his age to shame and arguably steals the show because of it – though that’s not for a lack of effort from his older brother Mikaiah, who bounds around the stage, hammering his guitar with relentless enthusiasm. The odd attempt at a slower number doesn’t really come off as well as the tight, fast-paced material that makes up most of the set, but nevertheless the performance is very well received by a crowd who understandably might not have given a damn. Mikaiah is certainly flattering to deceive when he calls the venue ‘beautiful’ though – let’s be honest, it’s a glorified gym court with a stage at one end.
The indistinctness of the surroundings immediately becomes irreverent once Blur take to the stage, however. Safe to say there’s no messing around or warming the crowd up gently – ‘Girls And Boys’ is the band’s opening gambit, and joyful pandemonium ensues as the crowd surges forward, while Anaiah from The Bots can be spotted as the show’s first crowd-surfer. The Parklife-era material continues to come thick and fast, with ‘London Loves’, ‘Tracy Jacks’ and ‘Jubilee’ all keeping the intensity up and seeing the crowd in full voice throughout. It’s actually quite impressive how well paced the set is – after this initial burst of lively activity, the band drop the tempo, but do so with some of the biggest hits from later in their career. ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Coffee & TV’ are both rapturously received, while ‘Out Of Time’ sees Iraqi musician Khyam Allami provide a touch of middle-eastern authenticity by playing the song’s distinctive riff on the oud (a type of Arabic lute) – it’s one of the night’s most beautiful moments.
After that, a section of the show dedicated some of the band’s more rarely performed material ensues – but not before Damon almost terminally embarrasses the 7-year old daughter of long time crew member Stuart Lowbridge by getting the entire crowd to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. Recently rediscovered B-side ‘Young And Lovely’ is subsequently dedicated to the youngster, and it’s the kind of gorgeously endearing song that demonstrates a potential depth to Blur’s back catalogue that I hadn’t even realised could exist. Similarly, a back-to-back airing of 13‘s ‘Trimm Trabb’ and ‘Caramel’ allows the band an opportunity to show off their darker side – the former simmering with misanthropy before exploding into chaotic frustration, the latter a masterpiece of understated melancholy whose cathartic payoff packs a distinctly more visceral punch here than it does on record.
“And now for something completely different,” says Albarn after ‘Caramel’ draws to a close – and true to his word, the band ease back into Britpop mode with ‘Sunday Sunday’, before ‘Country House’ and ‘Parklife’ fire the crowd up even further. It’s pretty much been a flawless set so far, but there are occasional moments that will have made the band glad this was effectively a rehearsal and not the main event at Hyde Park, though they only serve to add a little extra character to the performance rather than detracting from it. Damon fluffs his lines during ‘Parklife’, and immediately after that both he and Graham snap a guitar string within the space of two songs. It’s interesting to see how the pair deal with the problem in completely different ways – Coxon continues to shred his way through ‘Oily Water’ with only five strings, while Albarn effectively abandons his instrument and takes the opportunity to marshal the crowd through the “la-la-la”s of ‘The Puritan’.
As the band blast through ‘Popscene’ and ‘Advert’ it’s becoming increasingly surreal to me that I’m watching this band playing these songs live in these relatively intimate surroundings. I can’t help but wonder if the energetic blur (sorry) of ‘Song 2’ or ‘No Distance Left To Run’s utter desolation might lose a little impact in the open expanse of Hyde Park – though on the other hands, there are other songs that certainly won’t. The singalong to ‘Tender’ starts before Albarn even opens his mouth, while ‘This Is A Low’ is so utterly powerful that it can surely transcend any barrier.
After a seemingly obligatory chorus of ‘Tender’s “oh my baby” refrain as we wait for the band to return, Albarn takes to the piano to lead the band through the chiming expanse of ‘Sing’ – a song that seems tailor-made for the band’s big day in London on Sunday, which makes it all the more incredible that it’s from the band’s debut record Leisure. A beautiful, heartwarming rendition of ‘Under The Westway’ follows – for me, it’s easily the better of Blur’s two newest tracks – before the band have a little fun by playing the ‘Intermission’ from Modern Life Is Rubbish. After that, it’s pure victory lap stuff, and I mean that in a good way – the anthemic ‘End Of A Century’ rolls into a triumphant ‘For Tomorrow’, before ‘The Universal’ ends the set on a euphoric emotional high – for those present here tonight “well, here’s your lucky day” couldn’t be a more fitting sentiment. It takes me a while to process afterwards – it seems unbelievable that I’ve witnessed such a phenomenal show by a truly important British band, but it really (really really) did happen.