18th & 20th June
The Strokes and Blur both played incredible Hyde Park shows as part of British Summer Time festival. While in the past BST has been more of a series of huge individual concerts than a typical festival, a lot of work has paid off this year into making the event much more than simply a concert, with three stages of support acts throughout the day, and many impressive and custom designed bars and food stalls.
It being their first London show in five years, and their first UK show since 2011, anticipation was particularly high for The Strokes’ British return. The band have certainly been on the rocks in recent years: Its members reportedly barely speak to each other, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. has suffered from severe drug addictions, and the non-touring of their last album Comedown Machine contributed to its failure to match the commercial success of the group’s early albums. There is no doubt the band are a long way from the group that released seminal album Is This It? 14 years ago. Spurred by comments from Albert Hammond Jr. threatening that Hyde Park could be their final show, combined with individual band member’s solo projects taking off, there was certainly a feeling in the air that this was going to be the last Strokes show for a long time.
In defiance of these naysayers, The Strokes played a career-spanning set that could certainly be considered one of the highlights of their career. Playing songs from each of their five albums, there was not a single bad song in their set, right the way through from opener ‘Is This It’, to closer ‘Take It Or Leave It’. While obvious hits such as ‘Last Nite’, ‘New York City Cops’, and ‘Reptilia’ sent the London crowd into collective nostalgia, it was the less familiar ‘You Talk Way Too Much’ and ‘Heart In a Cage’ that really stood out on the night.
The lack of focus on most recent album Comedown Machine may have been an obvious sign that this is a band relying on past hits over new material, but the uncharacteristicly positive mood of the band made this a special show —being a band of notoriously few words, frequently not uttering a word to the audience at their shows (which only ever spurred more rumours of impending break up). Yet tonight frontman Julian Casablancas bantered readily with the crowd, and from the smiles on his bandmates’ faces, the rest of the band clearly enjoyed the occasion too.
Not even an overly drunk crowd could drag down the euphoric atmosphere of The Strokes’ set, but I couldn’t help feeling that the abundance of onstage banter almost had a sentimental twist, and as the band charged into ‘Someday’, it was to ignore the uncertainty of the band’s future.
A host of impressive bands supported The Strokes on the day, including Temples, Beck and Future Islands. While Beck’s set was energetic, his eclectic mix of styles failed to impress the crowd. The best support act of the day was Future Islands, with new track ‘The Chase’ combined with frontman Samuel Herring’s dad dancing making their set one of the highlights of the day.
While Blur weren’t blessed with the same sunny weather as The Strokes, that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people flocking to Hyde Park. Those who braved the downpour throughout Metronomy’s support act were treated to strange set opening of an onstage ice cream van preparing rows of 99 flakes (a reference to the Blur’s recent album The Magic Whip). Bounding onto the stage Damon Albarn proceeded to hand out these out to the crowd, which, as they were inevitably crushed by the many clutching hands of the baying crowd, forced even Albarn to admit “it’s all going horribly wrong.”
This was Blur’s third Hyde Park show, and the band certainly knew what they were doing. Their two-hour greatest hits set barely dipped in pace, with classics such as ‘Beetlebum’, ‘Tender’, ‘Song 2’ and ‘There’s No Other Way’ drawing huge singalongs from the crowd.
With Damon Albarn as energetic as ever, and Alex James nonchalant as ever with cigarette in hand, one could be mistaken for thinking Blur have barely changed in the last 20 years. But what made this show overwhelmingly different from Blur’s Hyde Park show in 2012 was the presence of new material (unless you count their 2012 single ‘Under the Westway’). ‘Go Out’ and ‘Ong Ong’ from their new album sounded brilliant live, and certainly fitted in amongst their older material. New song ‘Thought I was A Spaceman’, with its crashing guitar lines, was actually the highlight of the whole set. However it was the appearance of Phil Daniels, the original voice for 1994’s ‘Parklife’ that instigated the biggest audience reaction of the night.
As the band emerged for the encore and dived into ‘Girls & Boys’, nobody needed reminding of the ludicrous amount of hits the band have in their back catalogue, but it was excellent to see the new material matching up to it. While having seen a much more intimate Blur show in the Blackpool the previous week, the atmosphere in Hyde Park was slightly disappointing, but it was hard not to be blown away by their energy and confidence.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the night was Damon Albarn thanking and acknowledging Graham Coxon’s role in making sure new album The Magic Whip was actually released and not simply forgotten as the Hong Kong jams they could have been.
As the crowd emptied from Hyde Park after perfect set closer ‘The Universal’, there was a collective joy of having seen one of the best ever British bands back at the top of their game. It certainly feels like the band is back at full strength again.
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