BLUR Wolverhampton Civic Hall 05 August 2012
So here we are again. Blur. Feted as the Best Of British. Shortlisted for the Olympics Closing Ceremony concert at Hyde Park. Wrapped in the flag.
I've never felt comfortable with the flag. My first political memories are of ships going to war. Fire and explosions. The Falklands. People begging in the streets for food. This is what Britain means to me. I've never felt comfortable defining myself by a flag.
Blur,meanwhile, ten years since their last record (well, nine), and thirteen years since the band were anything much other than Damon Albarn's plaything, and Blur return for a handful of shows – nine in all, climaxing in front of 60,000 people.
But what is the point? If you're Damon Albarn sometimes his restless urge doesn't reflect experimentation as much as it does running away. A relentless quest to never make two records with the same band in a row has seen Gorillaz, The Good The Bad And The Queen, a solo record based upon a fanciful opera, a instrumental trio or two of various names, despoil his talent with increasingly distant lyrical works that alienate me. As Albarn grows older, and inevitably richer, he seems to often forget the life people live in favour of abstract or meaningless. Here, tonights concentrated Blur shows that Damon needs someone to argue with him. Someone to tell him “No.” Much like Morrissey and Prince, Albarn needs something to fight against. It is no wonder, after all, that Blur's final album was largely both openly fulfilling a contractual obligation and, without Graham Coxon to ground him, lacking in the essential earthiness and grit that made the rest of the band so powerful.
So, with all that in mind, what is the point? Is there a point? Other than that we could. Other than this would be an experience. One more night – or a few more nights – back in there.
From the opening bars of the opening song, tonights set is almost exclusively a museum of modern music : drawing mostly from 1994's Lightning-in-a-bottle “Parklife”, and 1999's stellar “13”, with a set that is both expansive and draws on greatest hits and revels in the odd obscurity, it feels curiously final, a measured confirmation : Yes, we can still do this, and yes, this is what it used to be like. It's the same.
But Blur are two bands : three, even. The first incarnation, from 1990 to 1995, saw Blur hone themselves into a ever narrower avenue – culminating in 1995's insular “The Great Escape.”, where a self-imposed exile of so-called Britishness saw the band become a parody of exaggerated stereotypes. 1997-2003 saw the next era : a more worldly, personal set of songs. And now? Blur hover between the two, with the last record, “Think Tank”, being both divorced from the British identity, and individual personality, to be a largely abstract record about well... I don't know what.
At times, Blur are an extension of an art project : the opening quartet – all taken from “Parklife” are character songs, with Damon playing a character. At times, especially on “Jubilee” and “London Loves”, he looks almost bored : not sincere, but acting, playing a role, projecting an image of a British Man, British Image#1. A man is never more himself than when he pretends to be someone else. Sometimes, and maybe this is the glint in his eye, he's playing a role of being a rock star, being someone he isn't. The way he swaggers across the stage, his robotic walk, the angle of learned stagecraft of reaching here, and doing this, and the crowd doing that,is an act : an imitation of a rock star, or a faked, staged sincerity. However, over time, as the band begin to combine their respective eras into a cohesive facade, Albarn switches easily – too easily – between sincere, staged, and something else. At times it feels that he, like anyone in any band, is playing a role of a rock star bearing his own name : but isn't it often the case that we are individuals playing a role of who we are? Lover, brother, father, son, all of these roles make up the someone that we are. We are often dozens of people at the same time.
I understand the need to have a defence or a pretence : a front to face the world with.
Not that Wolverhampton really cares. They are not here for who these people are (neither am I). We are all here to receive the transfusion of music, to experience what these songs mean to us again. It doesn't seem to bother most people that of the 12 people on stage tonight, 4 are the typical, identikit, black clad soul backing singers, 3 are a horn section in matching Fred Perry tops, and there's the ubitious extra keyboard player. For every official Blur member on stage, there are two extra, salaried performers bulking out the lineup to something larger than Pink Floyd at their most gratitutous. Blur don't need this crutch of salaried blokes and the first time I saw them, none of these extraenous players were here. But sometimes, I'm sure Albarn almost likes it. Meanwhile Dave Rowntree hits things with an understated precision, and Alex James – looking for all the world like some kind of indie Brian Cox – casually grooves away laying down sub-bass grooves with callous ease. Hard to believe that this man has something like 437 kids and breeds cheese for money.
Thankfully, the band are the tightest, sharpest I have seen Blur over the past twenty years. For the latter half of the set, nudged near Graham Coxon, we watch as he conjurs all kind of wonderful noises from a guitar, lost in music. The man is a genius in need of a muse. Albarn is a muse in need of a genius to temper his excess. The two need each other. Whether they know it or not. A later generations Morrissey and Marr.
They open with “Girls And Boys”. It is the finest pop music of theirs. The crowd erupts and never lets go : one third Indie Dads, one third Milf Indie Wives, one third too-young-to-have-been-there-then. All of us clinging to something that maybe never existed, an idealised Britain of the recent past. If you thought Modern Life Was Rubbish then, wait until you see the future.
It may be a Sunday night, but it's still a Sunday night. Not that you would know from the crowd. All slightly too old to do this, and mostly jumping around, or singing loudly, and punching the air. A. G. A. I. N.
There's no real retrospective nostalgia as such : obvious choices such as say “To The End”, “Stereotypes”, “There's No Other Way”, “She's So High”, “Chemical World”, “On Your Own”, “MOR”, are absent. But do you want a predictable nostalgia show? I was dreading the baggy explosion of the chronically over-rated, and lyrically vaccuous earlier stuff. Aside from a splendid “Sing” - the rarely played 1991 hymn – nothing from the 1991 debut gets an airing. Thank god. “Leisure” is worse than “Pablo Honey.”, suffering from the kind of stifled expression that a lack of confidence and record company meddling makes. Instead, we get a set that covers all periods – not just the usual “early stuff and greatest hits”. Therefore, we get (for the 3rd time ever) “Caramel”., and not often played material such as “No Distance Left To Run” (for the second time since 2000) and “Young & Lovely” (for the 6th time ever). Elsewhere, the set carries moments that hit raw to the heart, such as the mass communal singalong of “Tender”, and Damon sums up the currency of this day and age with a line in “Under The Westway” : men in yellow jackets are putting up adverts in my dreams
“Song 2” is thrown away mid set with barely a moments thought : the venue leaps and collapses. Oh look! Another hit!
All this sounds remoreselessly negative. It isn't. Blur are shimmering, golden, important, and tonight is the best show of theirs I have seen in the 20 years I have been seeing them. They have their moments of glory, and shine like some kind of beacon. At the end of the night, as “For Tommorow” sails past 11pm, and “The Universal” glows, Blur have become some much more than they thought they could be : some kind of mythology, some kind of communal spokeperson for the millions, with songs that speak to us and for us : if nothing else, “The Universal” voices our eternal hope, that we live in the best of all possible world, and the worst at the same time, where it really, really could happen, and as the days fall away, as we fall out of time, as we grow older, as the progress of history past the end of the century, with no distance left to run, becomes some kind of unstoppable march to the end, that time is still ours to make a change.
The crowded Civic Hall, sweat pouring from walls, spits out 3,000 people who for a night forgot the world they have to live in and gave them a world they want to live in, perhaps we all have to know that we are all living in some kind of history, and reliving history, in some kind of moment we all share.
Girls & Boys- London Loves - Tracy Jacks - Jubilee - Beetlebum - Coffee & TV - Out Of Time - Young & Lovely - Trimm Trabb - Caramel - Sunday Sunday - Country House - Parklife - Oily Water - The Puritan - Popscene - Advert - Song 2 - No Distance - Tender - This Is A Low - Sing - Under The Westway - Intermission - End Of A Century - Into Tomorrow - The Universal