Sound and vision live bonanza; improved audio is the icing on the Hyde Park memorial cake…
Last spring, following his Twitter comments early in the year concerning Blur’s “amazing” work in the studio on new material, producer William Orbit announced that Damon Albarn had unexpectedly pulled the plug on recording sessions. The hearts of the eternally hopeful sagged, despite the fact that there had never been any confirmation from the band that they were embarking on an album. The release in early July of “Under The Westway” and “The Puritan” – two of only three new tracks recorded since 2003 – was very likely no more or less than what Blur had planned; that is, a teaser for their headlining set in Hyde Park on August 12 to mark the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
However clear a full stop at the end of the latest chapter in the Britpop survivors’ history it appears to be, the issue of this hefty (five-disc) deluxe live set – including DVD and 60-page hardback book of exclusive photographs – is unlikely to stem constant, see-sawing speculation about their future. It’s necessarily a time capsule, in which are sealed reminders of the twin triumphs of team Blur and Team GB, bathed in the glow of nostalgic pop euphoria and swollen national pride, albeit tempered by Albarn’s expressed distaste for the Olympics’ overweening commercialism. He declared that the band’s performance that summer evening was “for the human beings” – all 60,000 of them, packed in nose-to-neck.
This wasn’t Blur’s first gig in the royal park – they played two shows there on their initial reunion run in July of 2009 – but the double-CD that is the centerpiece of Parklive underscores the monumentality of the event. It’s rare among live recordings in that it offers a high-definition and overall vastly superior listening experience to the real-time performance, where the volume was frustratingly inadequate and echo a problem, prompting Albarn to enquire anxiously, “Can you hear us at the back? Back, back, back… well, I hope so.”
It’s an ecstatically hits-stuffed set that features only two songs from ‘The Great Escape’ (“Country House” and “The Universal”), just one (“Sing”) from ‘Leisure’ and seldom-aired, Hoople-like B-side, “Young And Lovely”, which Albarn prefaces with a group dedication to “our beautiful children.” Blur have released three compilation albums, but none of them point up the band’s engagingly contrary creativity and elastic pop nous quite like these two discs. Songs switch from rowdy and attitudinal (“Tracy Jacks”, a grungey and squalling “Trimm Trabb”, “Colin Zeal”) to sombre and reflective (“Beetlebum”, “Caramel”, the always touching “No Distance Left To Run”); from galumphing (“Country House”, “For Tomorrow”) and geezerish (“Sunday Sunday”, conceptual albatross “Parklife”, which features a comically rough-voiced Phil Daniels) to almost graceful (a compelling, desert-blues variation on “Out Of Time”, featuring Iranian oud player Khyam Allami, and horns-assisted closer “The Universal”). There’s no shortage of sing-along opportunities, but an epic and unravelled “Tender” takes the communal biscuit.
Given the fullness of this set, the “live extras” disc – comprised chiefly of a Wolverhampton Civic Hall warm-up in June, plus “Under The Westway” and “The Puritan” as performed live on Twitter from a London rooftop – demands a second sitting. As does the recording of Blur’s show at the tiny 100 Club on August 2, where Albarn tests out his introduction to “Young And Lovely” and the sweaty ambience is almost audible.
Any live audio recording, however impressive its quality, stumbles at the verisimilitude hurdle; those who were there are reminded of something they already remember, those who weren’t can only imagine it. The Parklive DVD bridges that gap. There’s Graham Coxon rolling on his back, legs flailing during a gnarly guitar workout; here he is mid-“Tender”, receiving an affectionate kiss on the cheek from Albarn; now, in a raucous “Song 2” the singer’s losing his shit and – during one particularly athletic leap – almost his trousers, too. Even the appearance during “Parklife” of Harry Enfield dressed as a tea lady, complete with trolley and urn looks less like a hideously dated gaucherie and more a crowd-pleasing concession made by a band in their mid-40s who’ve made peace not only with one other, but also their pop past.
Parklive, of course, comes with a cockles-warming narrative; four grown men with wildly divergent interests – lo-fi garage punk, local politics, artisan cheese and Chinese opera – who’ve somehow beaten the survival odds. But it takes more than sentimentality to sustain a live record, however “historic” the event. Blur’s set will stand. Until their next move…