The 90s was the decade of grunge in the US, but in the UK, it was the decade of Britpop. Along with the likes of compatriots (and often rivals) such Oasis, Suede, and Pulp, Blur helped to define and popularize the genre. The band – consisting of Damon Albarn on vocals, Graham Coxon on guitar, Alex James on Bass, and Dave Rowntree on drums – recorded a total of seven albums over the course of their original run before splitting in 2003. Coxon left to pursue a solo career. Albarn moved on to find success with his “virtual band” with artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz. James took up cheesemaking, and Rowntree became a solicitor. Fans all but gave up on the idea that the band would play together again.
Until, that is, the end of 2008, when the band announced that they were reuniting for a pair of concerts at Hyde Park in London. From there, the band went on to make a number of festival appearances throughout Europe, and even played Coachella in 2013. All the while, though, the band put down all rumors of a new album, releasing only a few new songs as singles. That changed early this year, though, with the release of the single “Go Out” in February along with the announcement of the band’s eighth album, The Magic Whip, to follow in March. Soon after, the band finally announced the US shows that North American fans had been waiting for, though with only two dates, at the Hollywood Bowl in LA and Madison Square Garden in New York City, the two biggest concerts the band had ever played in the US. Last week, after months of anticipation, those shows finally arrived.
In a nod to the new lease on life that The Magic Whip had brought the band, Blur opened their set in NYC with “Go Out” on a stage set flanked with neon ice cream cones mirroring the album cover. But it wasn’t to be a night of new material, as the band ended up playing only three other songs from the album – “Lonesome Street,” “Ghost Ship,” and “Thought I Was a Spaceman” – and spent the other 17 songs of their 21 song setlist revisiting their classic tracks. As the band launched into their second single, 1991’s “There’s No Other Way,” Albarn scurried back and forth across the stage, making sure that all of the fans got a chance to see the dynamic frontman. As he went he threw water out onto the audience – a move he has become known for, and one probably more appreciated at outdoor summer festivals in the heat than in Madison Square Garden in the middle of October – but stopped short when a fan in the front threw beer back at him. At first he seemed annoyed – “Whoever did that, now I smell like I normally smell at the end of the evening. Where am I going to go from here?” – but he quickly brushed it off, noting that “tonight is about, for us, just saying thank you.”
While the core of the music was handled by the quartet of the band, the show was a large production, with a horn section on the stage left side of the stage, a string section and a group of backing singers to stage right, a keyboardist, and a percussionist added to the mix. Coxon took on lead vocals for “Coffee & TV” as he did on the original album version. In LA the band had recruited Fred Armisen to perform the vocal part on “Parklife” originally performed by Phil Daniels on the album, but Albarn noted that they hadn’t been successful in recruiting anyone (in addition to Armisen they apparently also tried for Mike Myers) for New York. Instead, they invited several audience members onto the stage, and Albarn handed the microphone off to one girl from the group, who ably belted out the first verse before he took over for rest of the song.
It was these kinds of surprises that marked the night and made it stand out. Whether it was Albarn coming down to sing from the front of the audience (his security detail struggling to hold him back from being pulled into the crowd), or he and James kissing during “Coffee & TV,” or him improvising the song “Donald Trump Is a Chump” at the end of “Tender” while the other band members prepared for the next song, the band (and particularly Albarn) was always up to something, and seemed to be having the time of their lives. As well they should have been during a victory lap that saw them playing a venue where Albarn noted “it’s only taken us 25 years to get here… but as I keep telling myself, better late than never, right?”
While a large part of the setlist consisted of the hits – “Girls and Boys,” “Song 2,” “Beetlebum,” “For Tomorrow,” etc. – the band also pulled out several surprises from their deeper album tracks, including “Country Sad Ballad Man” from their self-titled album, “Trimm Trabb” from 13, and “Badhead” from Parklife. In all, an arena full of fans got to witness a band that has managed to find their way back to the top of their game. It’s uncertain what the future holds for Blur – the band is being as coy as ever regarding future plans, and Albarn has announced a new Gorillaz album for next year – but after such a strong performance, we can only hope that they continue to come back for years to come.
Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett opened the show, playing a set drawn primarily from her album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.