The ex-Smith proves his greatness on a spiky live album
Hyde Park, London, August 12
After three weeks of investing all our emotional capital in the medal prospects of anyone in a Team GB leotard, we’re all feeling a little bit fragile. So as for how we’re going to cope with the last ever show by one of the most cherished bands this country has ever produced, wielding a set full of songs explicitly designed to tickle all our emotional triggers – especially those of us who came of age in the ’90s, when Blur vs Oasis felt like a matter of life and death – well, hankies at the ready, folks.
Maybe we shouldn’t care so much. After all, weren’t Blur here, in this very spot, three years ago, playing all these songs for the very last time? Undoubtedly, this gig brings with it a faint, queasy feeling of double déjà vu, of nostalgia for the last time we felt nostalgic.
And earlier in the evening, there is a warning of what can happen when reunited bands stumble on indefinitely, like a closing down sale that never closes down. New Order are one of the few British groups whose catalogue equals Blur’s for moments of stark, galvanising pop brilliance, but their songs are ill-served by the band’s current, grudging, Peter Hook-less incarnation. They make a pig’s ear of ‘Blue Monday’, although ‘Temptation’ remains majestic enough to transcend its current circumstances, and there is something oddly moving about watching a field full of people wave plastic Union Jacks along to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. The Specials, meanwhile, are tight and punchy, and Terry Hall looks vaguely more alive than he has done on recent occasions. But they’re still a one-dimensional museum piece, wheeled out to please the dads.
The difference is that Blur don’t feel like a retro band at all. The moment darkness falls across London W1 and they launch into ‘Girls & Boys’, the atmosphere is instantly transformed and a sunburned Jubilee picnic becomes a meaningful, momentous occasion. It helps that the band’s entrance is contrasted with scenes of the clunking, Danny Boyle-less closing ceremony displayed on the big screens. Any foreigners hoping to gain an insight into what Britishness really means should forget the newsprint-wrapped taxis and dodgy Churchill impressions and watch the footage of this show.
The opening quartet of ‘Parklife’ songs are thrillingly manic, reminding us that beneath the mockney veneer, there was always something heartfelt and sympathetic about these portraits of ordinary people getting a raw deal from modern life. And then, after ‘Tracy Jacks’ has bulldozed his own house, we get searing heartbreak (‘No Distance…’), the black hole of smack addiction (‘Beetlebum’), and the inescapable ennui of the successful fella in ‘Country House’ who is so sad, he doesn’t know why.
Blur attack all these songs as if they wrote them last week. They certainly don’t look like a bunch of dads getting it together for old time’s sake. There are no beer bellies, bald heads or baggy trousers on display here. Even Alex looks impressively lithe for a self-confessed cheese addict who’s spent the last year writing puff pieces about fast food factories. Brilliantly, when the curtain comes up, he is playing his bass while casually smoking a fag, just like old times.
Graham permits himself the odd chuckle at the ludicrousness of ‘Country House’ but otherwise keeps his head down. Damon, however, is visibly moved by the occasion. Maybe it’s just the way his eyebrows grow these days, but as he sings, it looks as if he’s constantly grappling with the trickiest of dilemmas: this is bloody brilliant – but if we did it again, and kept doing it, would the magic begin to evaporate?
If there’d been an obvious exodus towards the bar for the awkward, despairing numbers like ‘Trimm Trabb’ and ‘Caramel’ then maybe that would confirm Damon’s suspicion that the public don’t want a weird, experimental, forward-focused Blur. But those songs have become as integral to the Blur experience as ‘Parklife’, barrelled through here with Phil Daniels on guest luv-a-bit-of-its, and Harry Enfield dressed as a tea lady.
Admittedly, the one new song in the set, ‘Under The Westway’ – the inspiration for their impressive-if-rather-literal stage set – feels overwhelmingly elegiac; the tender underlining of an old chapter rather the start of a new one. But there’s enough evidence here – in the relish with which Graham attacks his gnarled solos, in the way that musical guests like oud player Khyam Allami are ushered confidently into the fray, in Damon’s awestruck gaze as he struggles to compose himself to sing emotional closer ‘The Universal’ – to suggest that Blur have a future if they want it.
As we traipse down towards Hyde Park Corner, along paths strewn with discarded Team GB banners and stick-on Wiggo sideburns, a chorus of ‘Tender’ continues to ripple through the air. It’s pretty apt, really: a hymn to lost love, repurposed by the crowd into a requiem for the band who wrote it.
We’re all feeling a bit tender right now. But we’ll get through it.
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