London SE1 Royal Festival Hall

They may be dads, but they're dads rocking.

The omens were not good. The mystically-minded [a]Blur[/a] fan, cutting open the chickens and swirling the tea leaves, might well have predicted a long and vexing evening of polka, played in the style of [a]Pavement[/a] and bellowed by Keith Allen in a comedy hat. Consider [a]Blur[/a]’s slightly alarming taste in extracurricular activities, combine it with the rumour they’d created a special all-new Meltdown set, and it’s not too hard to leap the thin line between anticipation and apprehension.

Somehow, however, those grim rock gods who ensure that your heroes always disappoint you, that there’s experimental jazz yearning within every songwriter and that each successful band will slowly come to loathe their audience, are dazzlingly outplayed. Tonight, [a]Blur[/a] perform a set of remarkable generosity, as high-spirited as a school coach trip, the work of men with fresh-painted portraits lurking in their attics. Together with Radiohead‘s crushing return, it’s an unspoken reproach for those bands who have slipped under the acceptability net with the minimum entry requirements. A reminder, should you need one, of why this band are still a treasure, still a pleasure.

“We’re playing once this year and this is it,” announces Damon Albarn, clothed in beatific glow, reduced hair and a T-shirt that reads ‘Chancer’. “Hope you enjoy our little programme.”

It’s an easy task. Swerving the instant gratification of a greatest hits set, they instead rifle through their recent back pages, opening with the channelled hysterics of ‘Battle’, weaving through the spacy fatalism of ‘Trimm Trabb’, pushing ‘Tender’ hard with Alex James on cigarettes and double bass and the London Community Gospel Choir in fits of laughter thanks to a whispered Damon aside. The Britpop epoque is represented by the most mutedly atypical tracks – the stormy weather of ‘This Is A Low’, the hormone-coshed swoon of ‘Blue Jeans’, and ‘To The End’, dedicated with touchingly nervous incompetence to Scott Walker. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” giggles Damon, “he’s just had an enormous effect on us all.” They then up the hero quotient by bringing on Ken Livingstone to drone through ‘Ernold Same’, with Damon hilariously attempting to keep him in time.

It’s this charm that’s most heartening. When a ferocious writhe through ‘Beetlebum’ suddenly collapses, so do they, Graham Coxon cackling toothily, Alex yelling, “It wasn’t me!” like a recalcitrant child. [a]Blur[/a]’s appeal has always had deep roots in their virtually erotic fraternal bond, and after discouraging reports of discord, it’s good to see them playfully flicking paper pellets at the band dynamic. Graham, squirrelling away over his guitar, still looking like he needs a note to explain why he missed games; Damon still moving like his knees have been taped together – they may be dads, but they’re dads rocking.

They close with a new song – “If you don’t like it, we’re fucked,” laughs Damon with merry honesty. It’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ and ‘Tender’, it’s gospel choir and Krautrock thrum, it’s lyrics about soul but with that distinctive, welcome glint in the eye. They don’t appear to be fucked. There might be no encore, but they’re coming back to us all the same.