Blur played a special, 300 capacity show for fan club members on Friday evening (March 20), and we were lucky enough to be there to witness new album ‘The Magic Whip’ being played in full. Here are 10 things we learned.
They’re match fit
Blur’s new album might be the first they’ve recorded as a four-piece since 1999’s ’13’, but they haven’t allowed themselves to get rusty in the interim, playing two Hyde Parks, a series of European festivals and a Glastonbury headline slot since their 2009 semi-reunion. As such, even in a small room where there was nowhere to hide, the band were tight, fit and up for it. Albarn came out bouncing right from the off, and was soon indulging in his favourite mid-gig sport – dousing the front rows in water from his bottle.
They don’t travel far
The show took place at Mode (formerly Subterranea), located under the Westway, the flyover that inspired Blur’s brilliant between-album single ‘Under The Westway’. Albarn’s 13 Studio is nearby, as is his home. Hyde Park, scene of their big comeback gig this summer, is just three miles away.
They like an early start
The gig began at 7pm on the dot, and was over by 8pm. Earlier in the day, they played the same set – the album in full – for a friends-and-family audience, meaning Blur had polished off two full gigs by the time most of us were polishing off our second post-work pint.
Stephen Street has helped them dial back to a ‘classic’ Blur sound…
Stephen Street – co producer or producer of every Blur album from 1991’s ‘Leisure’ to 1997’s ‘Blur’ – stepped in to help guitarist Graham Coxon turn a batch of jams into proper songs, and his influence was immediately apparent. The gig’s opening track, ‘Lonesome Street’, has the hallmarks of ‘The Great Escape’-era Blur. Check out the video below.
…But there’s a new sound too.
Coxon and – to a greater extent – Albarn have each enjoyed varied careers since Blur last sat down to make an album, and that’s absolutely evident in the sound. ‘New World Towers’, in particular, was evocative of the spare, gospel-influenced sound of Albarn’s 2014 solo album ‘Everyday Robots’, which was recorded concurrently. ‘Ice Cream Man’ bears the hallmarks of Albarn collaborator Brian Eno, and ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ used programmed beats that wouldn’t be out of place on a Gorillaz record.
‘Ong Ong’ has great sing-along potential
Blur specialise in unifying moments, whether the soul-swaddling sing-along in ‘Tender’ or the “girls who like boys” bit in ‘Girls & Boys’. Adding to this list is ‘The Magic Whip’ track ‘Ong Ong’, which is seemingly built for boozy crowd participation. As if to prove a point, Albarn tested its chorus line, “I only want to be with you”, by singing it back-and-forth with the crowd after the song ended. “That’s paid for my ice creams, then,” he said after.
The theme of chaotic cities points back to earlier work
The band have spoken about ‘The Magic Whip’ being influenced by trips to cities in the far East, particularly Hong Kong and Pyongyang, which lends its name to a song. They’ve written about London plenty in the past, and there are touches of two of the zippiest, urban landscape-inspired songs from ‘Parklife’ – ‘London Loves’ and ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’ – in the sound of ‘The Magic Whip’. As if to prove a point, the group played the latter as their encore – its first outing in 20 years.
Graham Coxon’s influence can’t be denied
In the time he went away to work on the demos, Coxon blessed each of them with his trademark guitar magic. Always an inventive player and always a key part of the Blur sound, he’s made amends for being absent during ‘Think Tank’ by squealing out spectral riffs and unfurling ambient chords that – in his way – never try and steal the attention, but are utterly integral to the sound of the 11 songs on ‘The Magic Whip’.
It’s not a four-person thing
Even though they were on a tiny stage, Blur found a way to pack extra players in – a group of backing vocalists were on the balcony above stage left, and there was a string section crammed in at stage right.
Hyde Park is going to be amazing
Excepting the encore, the gig was all new material, and it was utterly brilliant. Throw in some hits, a bit of summer sunset magic and about 65,000 more fans and they just can’t go wrong on June 20.