When these two Hyde Park shows were announced last December, we ran a piece in UNCUT celebrating the return to active service of Blur, where David Cavanagh quite reasonably asked the question: which Blur are coming back? After all, here was a band who had undergone many creative iterations during their recording lifetime; equally, so much had happened since the four of them last played together, in July 2000, it seemed appropriate to wonder what Blur would do with these shows. Could they really reconnect with the moptops who made the buoyant baggy pop of “There’s No Other Way”? Would they really revisit “Parklife”, a song intrinsically linked to an era and movement they’d subsequently gone to considerable lengths to distance themselves from? And what about the more abstract, edgier material from the later albums – what place would that have in Hyde Park?
Well, tonight we have what you might call EveryBlur. By which I mean, they cover all bases. Here’s a band conspicuously at peace with themselves and with their back catalogue. As guitarist Graham Coxon flagged up in the NME last December, “I always think there are two routes to Blur. The high street route and this other route round the back.” So, of course we’d get “Girls And Boys” and of course we’d get “Trimm Trabb”. Both equally, incontrovertibly, Blur. And both, in their radically different ways, equally brilliant.
The crowd in Hyde Park, sweltering in the hottest day of the year, resembles a Hackney flashmob, all skinny t-shirts and angular haircuts. They’re very young, too. One 16 year-old French student, who’s come over for the show, tells me he was “11 when Blur last played Reading Festival” and wants to hear “everything”. In the crowd, I spot, separately, Nigel Planer and Nikki from Big Brother. One girl has written in blue chalk up her right arm “Hooligan” and “Gorilla” on her left, lyrics from “On Your Own”. There’s a palpable air of excitement and energy that, mixed with the heat and alcohol, threatens to drift into something slightly more dangerous. We are, inevitably, a far cry from the crowd who were here for Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen last weekend.
Walking into Hyde Park, one residual concern I’d had was – how much have these songs dated? “Tracy Jacks”, “Sunday Sunday” or quite literally “End Of The Century” feel so firmly located in a specific time and cultural headspace, and we are no longer 20th century boys and girls. So how much would this be an exercise in nostalgia, and if so how successful could it be? I realise these are, of course, music journalist questions, and clearly not the kind of issues that are particularly bothering anyone here. This is a communal moment of celebration for a band, their history and back catalogue. Entirely fittingly, too, for band who so assiduously documented a London living, it is held in one of the capital’s largest parks, with a huge map of London covering the left hand side of the stage wall and one of the UK on the right. The sun goes down, the moon comes up. It’s a perfect setting.
The band arrive at around 8.15 in what’s still pretty much full sunlight. Damon and drummer Dave Rowntree appear to be wearing identical Fred Perry tops, black with yellow trip round the collar and sleeves; Graham in a Breton t-shirt and bassist Alex James dressed in black and Silk Cut. If you’ve been following the set-lists over the band’s warm-up shows over the last few weeks, then there’s very few surprises. We are hits all the way. But there are sly and subtle treatments; “Girls And Boys” is amphetamined up, Damon sounding sociopathic, snarling his way through “Love in the 90s, it’s paranoid…”. Graham’s guitar on “There’s No Other Way” is angry and grungey, a long way from the skittering riffs of the record. Indeed, “Beetlebum” ends with him hunched over his amp, pulling dark, inchoate noises out of his guitar that leaves Damon walking shell-shocked round the stage scratching his head and reminds me, in fact, of Neil Young here last Saturday creating a similar seismic upheaval on Old Black. There are many similar Graham moments: on “Oily Water”, particularly, while Damon screams through a megaphone, he blasts sheets of woozy, rhapsodic feedback from his guitar that outdo anything I’ve heard from, say, Kevin Shields.
Even “Parklife”, bless it, with Phil Daniels walking on to deliver a speech from Quadrophenia – “You can take that mail, and that franking machine, and all that other rubbish I have to deal with and shove it right up your arse!” – before it begins, gets reconfigured as something more than a bouncy, blokey, comedy hit. Daniels’ narrator isn’t the jokey bloke down the pub talking about feeding the pigeons, but closer to the sinister, wired persona he inhabited on “Me White Noise”. Ridiculously, perhaps, a line like “It’s got nothing to do with your Vorsprung Durch Technic, you know,” feels loaded with menace. Aside from “Parklife”, the big singalongs are “Tender”, “End Of The Century” and “For Tomorrow”. “Tender” – a pretty bleak relationship breakdown song – is reincarnated as a positive, heartfelt message of love. “We feel really privileged to do nothing for so many years, then come back to this,” says Albarn humbly before “Popscene”.
Highlights? Everything, really. “This Is A Low” contains some of the most beautiful guitar soloing from Graham I’ve ever heard, nimble and expansive. “The Universal” is just beautiful. Gig of the year, then.
Blur’s Hyde Park set list (July 2) was:
‘She’s So High’
‘Girls & Boys’
‘There’s No Other Way’
‘Out Of Time’
‘Coffee & TV’
‘End Of A Century’
‘To The End’
‘This Is A Low’
‘Death Of A Party’
Pic credit: PA Photos