In 1995, the sensationalised battle of Britpop saw ‘Country House’ overtake Oasis’ ‘Roll With It’ to be crowned top of the charts. However, when What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) outsold their counterpart The Great Escape, Blur were said to have won the battle, yet lost the war. This is a neat line that attempts to corner two very separate bands, caught up in a cultural storm.
Nearly 30 years on, Blur have reinvented themselves, distanced themselves from Cool Britannia, lost a band member, recorded in Africa, broken up, headlined Glastonbury, gone on hiatus and then toured the world. And despite all of this, when a likely well-meaning audience member quips “Play Wonderwall!” immediately before Blur’s final song of the night, Damon Albarn revels in the theatre of it. “Brilliant”, he smirks, not with a world-weary sigh but a definite glint in his eye.
Blur’s reunion, to fans, keeps giving. When bands reunite, there’s always a small percentage of doubt that less people will care; with Blur, the inverse has happened. Initially due to be a solitary celebration at Wembley Stadium, and a few European festival dates, fans now receive an album, a second night at Wembley, and a four date “warm up” tour. Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree do not need to do this; all have pursued their own projects and passions, and hit dizzying heights with them. Rowntree a councillor in the Norfolk area; James a cheesemaker; Coxon an accomplished solo artist, and Albarn the human face of the forever genre-bending Gorillaz. And yet, at the grand reopening of The Halls in Wolverhampton, having been closed for nearly as long as Blur were away, we see the four as a unit. And best of all, they look as if they’re enjoying themselves.
Opening with unreleased song ‘St Charles Square’, Blur warmed the crowd into the two-hour set, allowing everyone to soak up that Blur were real, and back. The slow lure of the unknown opener was immediately spun into a frenzy by the steamrolling riff of 1991’s ‘There’s No Other Way’, separating the lively young fans from those who lived through it the first-time round. Blur would rarely go below this level for the rest of the set.
Albarn’s presence on stage was infectious, and all the more wonderful by the look of glee he had playing the songs that launched him into stardom to a generation of new fans. He held the presence less of a rockstar at times, and more of a disgruntled marshal at a fun run, throwing cups of water over the crowd with fans only too grateful. The smokescreen of his dry wit (several times introducing tracks as ‘silly songs’) was punctured occasionally, with a genuine outpouring of emotion halfway through the set. Blur wear the same clothes, and do the same things as they did in the 90s, yet this isn’t their life anymore, this is their reunion. And it’s envious that four humans can touch their past so easily, and even be able to replicate it very convincingly.
Highlights of the set came with the mid-set Number One ‘Beetlebum’, with Coxon starring as he delivered the chilling, technically perfect anti-solo as the track continues to distort. Albarn begins to mimic Coxon’s riffs vocally, the pair always destined to work together. Coxon thrives on his technical ability, and provided jaw-dropping moments. However, Albarn and Coxon together are greater than the sum of their parts. When the two lean in to share vocals, or embrace, there’s an air of genuine love between the two.
Blur’s disposition for humour hasn’t been lost after all these years. Egos, side projects and fallings out could have seen the band “shut up and play the hits”. However, when Albarn breaks his glasses, and a fan hands him white circular shades that echo Kurt Cobain, Coxon plays the opening riff to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It’s a sequence of events that you could picture happening in a rehearsal room in Colchester, when Blur were students and called Seymour.
The band weave album tracks from Modern Life is Rubbish, celebrating its 30th anniversary, with their biggest hits that have lived long with fans, and in the case of some of the younger audience members, soundtracked their childhood. The crowd sing the words of ‘End of a Century’ from the soul, and celebrate Blur’s playfulness in their dynamic rendition of ‘Coffee and TV’. Whatever Blur wanted the audience to feel, they were able to evoke it. ‘Song 2’ causing the crowd to surge forward, ‘This Is A Low’ making them sway. All of us were in the palm of their hand.
A five-song encore began with two Wulfrunian friends of Albarn coming out to greet the crowd, prompting football-orientated joy. Albarn is keen to tell anecdotes throughout the set, as if collating his memoirs, and tapping into his past. He pants over ‘Girls & Boys’ like he did 30 years ago, and week-old single ‘The Narcissist’ falls seamlessly next to the floor filling anthem. 1999’s ‘Tender’ prompts tears, and each lyric is caringly sewn together. But instead of the searching lyrics asking questions, with the crowd singing back, they within themselves are answers. “Lord, I need to find, someone who can heal my mind” / “Love’s the greatest thing”, sing 3,500 people. For the duration of a song, we were at peace.
Despite the emotional weight of ‘Tender’ and 1995’s famous ‘The Universal’, there was still time for the maniacal ‘Intermission’ to be played penultimately. Albarn playing the piano with a thousand-yard stare, Coxon collapsing on the floor in a frenzy after seemingly trying to eat his guitar, James watching on and Rowntree crashing his drumkit to its limits. Blur are fathers, with adult responsibilities, but when they are on stage they can escape to act on their playful instincts. It’s not a case of “we can start over again”, but we can rekindle with the past.
Blur finished 45 seconds before curfew, and didn’t stay a moment longer, leaving when the applause was loudest. For a flagship band, that could easily phone in performances, they crucially don’t. The four of them together works so profoundly well, and Blur have enough perspective to recognise the joy they bring people, and it’s fortunate for us that they similar joy from reuniting. The glamour of their youth is clamoured for by millions; why wouldn’t you do it?
Blur play Wembley Stadium on the 8th and 9th of July
The Ballad of Darren is out on the 21st July. Pre-order here.