Blur - Empress Ballroom, Blackpool
Readying themselves for Hyde Park with a low-key warm up show, Blur are a fired-up force to be reckoned with
Barely two songs into Blur’s two-hour Blackpool warm-up show and it’s total chaos. During ‘There’s No Other Way’, the surging crowd causes the barrier to come apart at the front, and the reconciled four-piece are forced offstage.
Guitarist Graham Coxon lobs his plectrum in obvious frustration, while bassist Alex James lights up a cigarette. “We’ll be back in five minutes while they fix the problem,” he apologises between resigned puffs. Even without sound – or indeed the main attraction – the audience bellow the lyrics: “There’s no other way/There’s no other way/All that you can do is watch them play”. Blur in 2015 is all about communal euphoria.
Pre-interruption, they blaze out of the traps, their arrival heralded by jangly ice cream van music versions of ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ – a sign that while surprise comeback album ‘The Magic Whip’ may be infused with the spirit of the Far East, there’s still something parochially British about this band. Opening with new track ‘Go Out’, Damon strides on wearing novelty ‘Blackpool’ sunglasses, revelling in the gang spirit of renewed brotherhood, conspiratorially whispering into his comrades’ ears, trading licks with Graham and goofing around with Alex. Part of the thrill of being a Blur fan now is not knowing where this will go. After numerous aborted attempts, ‘The Magic Whip’ was carved out of a surprise five-day session in Hong Kong. Where next for them? Will these gigs before the upcoming Hyde Park appearance be their swansong?
Blur’s records have always luxuriated in a sense of place, and the exotic locale of ‘The Magic Whip’ – their first since 2003 – is reflected in the neon ice cream signs they perform in front of. A fan in the front row holds up a banner that reads “Flew In From Hong Kong”. With the barrier safely erected again, they resume ‘There’s No Other Way’, with Damon full of fiery antagonism, arms aloft like he’s scored the winner in the World Cup Final.
A four-piece horn section greets the arrival of Coxon-showcase ‘Coffee & TV’, which the diffident indie icon sings while staring at his shoes. It would have once seemed more likely for Damon to cover ‘Wonderwall’ than bury the hatchet with Graham, so it’s heartening to see the Morrissey and Marr of Britpop brimming with bonhomie, especially when Damon puts his head on Graham’s chest after ‘Beetlebum’. The dubby ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ successfully updates their legacy, before the punky ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’ sees Damon eye-balling the crowd with a ‘did you spill my pint?’ gaze, before jumping into the baying throng, who paw at him like he’s their first meal after Lent.
‘Tender’ is an anthemic tear-jerker somehow lent added gravitas by the passing of time. “How are you feeling now?” asks Damon rhetorically afterwards. “Do you want some more or should we just fuck off?”. The reaction that meets ‘Parklife’ makes it predictably cacophonous. It’s followed, brilliantly, by ‘Song 2’, which prompts pogoing so extreme you fear for the barrier again.
For the encore, they revisit 1995’s ‘Stereotypes’, which Damon introduces by saying “I think this song was written about Blackpool”. He’s so charismatic, you can’t tell whether it’s a compliment or a white lie. The disco bass of ‘Girls & Boys’ incites more mass jumping. It illustrates brilliantly Blur’s alchemy: in the lyrics, you can’t tell whether Damon is sneering at the Shagaluf 18-30s experience or gleefully celebrating it. As it drops into a breakdown that recalls the Pet Shop Boys’ 1994 remix, there’s also a timely reminder that Blur’s rise coincided with the gay indie scene of the ‘90s, and this tune was a stalwart of haunts like Popstarz. Even Alex James’s poker face is ruffled by the mayhem.
When they close with ‘The Universal’ – now safely rescued from British Gas advert purgatory – mates are hugged and tears streak down faces. The fans, ranging from feathercut-sporting teens to gnarled Britpop survivors who remember Salad and Mansun, realise they’ve been part of something special.
There’s a sense of spontaneity and fun to Blur’s recent actions, with the band having mounted a Twitter-based treasure hunt for fans to find a Blur Manga comic book earlier in the day, like an indie remake of The Goonies. Their reformation, however, is clearly built on solid foundations rather than mere haphazard arking about. Will there be another album? As the crowd enthusiastically sing at the end, “It really, really, really could happen.”