If you look up the word ‘smug’ in a dictionary, you are likely to see a picture of a few hundred people standing in an alarmingly small hall awaiting the arrival of Blur. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a ticket and was taken aback by quite how intimate the venue is; anyone propping up the bar at the back would have been as close as the front row at Hyde Park. Enough of the gloating.

Having seen Blur from 'Modern Life is Rubbish' onwards, though medium venues like the Forum to the nadir of Wembley during 'The Great Escape' period, they have always been a different proposition live than recorded. The albums are obviously compromises with conflicting or at least contrasting influences brought to the studio where they may sound like intelligent pop perfection us, but are perhaps not quite what either Graham Coxon or Damon Albarn really envisioned. Cue the break and solo careers so different that you find it hard to imagine the two could ever work together fruitfully.

Until you see them live. Then everything becomes clear. Working in total harmony to the same ends they perform with energy, craft and intensity that are rarely matched. Albarn appears on stage and he looks in a state of disturbed agitation, such is his need to focus on the job in hand. You can see him working to find exactly the right gear to launch into 'She’s So High' and he hits the ground running and only ever really speeds up, often threatening to leave the audience in his wake. But there is a logic to this. Much of the band’s music has been about alienation and feeling hopeless in the face of an ever more controlling society. What better way to express this than through the anger and emotion of new wave?

Coxon, it seems obligatory to point out nowadays, is an excellent guitarist. This may be a way of damning with faint praise in order to avoid the conclusion that his solo work has been somewhat less compelling than his bandmate’s. But along with a keyboardist hiding somewhere in the wings, Coxon is the rock on which Blur’s live sound rests. He may occasionally allows things to get out of hand, managing to somersault leaving his guitar and the song’s continuity unscathed, but otherwise he is all restrained energy with sharp New Wave riffs propelling a hit laden set.

The first few numbers appear to be there to show that at heart, despite the meandering experimentation, Blur are a stomping good New Wave band. 'Girls and Boys', 'Tracy Jacks', 'There’s No Other Way' and 'Jubilee' come thick and fast and four songs in I seem, by a process of gig natural selection, to have ended up far too close to the front for a stone cold sober man of my age. Albarn shows none of the prima donna aloofness we may expect. He gets down and dirty thrusting himself into the crowd on numerous occasions, until the inevitable happens during 'Advert' and he lands on my head as he crowd surfs. About half an hour in and a microclimate seems to have developed in the hall with flurries of condensation pouring from the ceiling.

The gig is largely episodic: 'Oily Water', 'Chemical World' and 'Sunday Sunday' ("Start pogoing when I start to run," Albarn says during the latter, with the crowd managing it for all of two or three bars.) from 'Modern Life is Rubbish' come on the bounce. Then a vignette of '13' with 'Trimm Trabb', 'Coffee and TV' and 'Tender' in succession, followed by a bite sized 'Parklife' with the title track, 'End of a Century', To The End' and 'This is a Low'. Whether this is part of some grand plan regarding the larger venues remains to be seen, but given how changeable the band’s output has been, having a totally random selection may not have made sense, as some of the more playful songs may not sit well next to their more thoughtful output.

They did, however, follow 'Tender' with 'Country House', two songs in rather different places on Blur’s spectrum. Country House sums up everything that is right and some things that some people think was wrong with Blur. On record it feels trite and throwaway, a radio/child friendly novelty. Live, it is a different proposition and an unlikely highlight of the gig.

Blur of course are no two-man band. Dave Rowntree has to be chivvied along by Albarn to get to the right tempo whereas Alex James perches on the monitor and appears as louche and laid back. But on closer inspection, you will see a man consumed by his task, no playing to the groundlings or posturing, the only motivation to get it right. The reason the four of them are on stage are, luckily for them, very different to the never ending round of comebacks played to the background of hatchets being buried and cash tills ringing. Someone once said you can never have too much money, but Blur were probably managing to make ends meet before the population of a small town descended upon Hyde Park.

While the songs go back practically two decades, this never feels like a nostalgia trip. Other reformations I have seen in the past few years from Gang of Four to the Specials to the Sex Pistols to Magazine, have all been tinged by the absolutely understandable caveat that these people need to make a living. With Blur, you feel it is an unalloyed belief in their own emotional and artistic integrity.

Emotional in the case of Coxon’s relationship with the other three. Artistic because no matter how many successful collaborations Albarn enters into, how many lo-fi or folk albums Coxon releases, how many elections Rowntree loses or how much cheese James makes, this is their primary channel to express themselves. Blur may not have given all of their everything that they wanted to get out of music, but nothing else is going to give them, or us, quite the rush, nostalgic or not, that playing this material live does.











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Commenting On: Goldsmiths College, London, 24/6/2009 - Blur








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