“Woo hoo”, as Blur once said. Deep in the heart of a packed crowd, arms by your sides because lifting them means arrogant freaks to the left will smack your larger-than-average nose, City Hall comes to life. A bruised knee from a trip to Bridlington to see Pulp and a smack on the snout for the troubles of seeing Sunday Sunday meet its finale. Blur are not in control of their crowd, no performer is, but they are in full power on stage at Newcastle’s City Hall where they find their footing on their final warm-up show. Primavera is just around the corner; the band had no cobwebs to shake and plenty of distance to run on these shows. Collecting their big hits and pairing them with pieces from upcoming album The Ballad of Darren, Blur strikes through with a confident, artsy routine.
Frontman Damon Albarn is always the centre of this particular storm and he manages it well through a well-moved and structured twenty-five-song marathon. Technically twenty-four after a brief showcase of Intermission, but it was just as the title suggested, a break before To The End. Front-row obsessives will delight in Damon lobbing water through the crowd, a necessary trick to keep people hydrated. But for those a few rows back, arms sweating under trench coats, glasses fogged up, Blur is Graham Coxon. Whining away on his Fender, switching out instruments with focus, rattling through with a major image shift from his stern showcase in The Waeve. He embodies the thoughtfulness of all the best stage performers. Volatility and stage presence are well worth reading up on in his autobiography, Verse, Chorus, Monster.
See it in action after learning of preparation, of pushing the fold and Pink Floyd’s influence. A seasoned guitarist in the very best way, and showing as much on classic track Song 2 and a wonderful return of Tracy Jacks. Alex James and Dave Rowntree, the firm glue which keeps Blur’s rhythm together, are as essential as they are cool. All four have moved on from the image associated with them in their heyday, but still serve the same purpose. James smokes his way through opener St Charles’ Square, looking as cool as he did when he plonked himself on top of a box for Girls and Boys over a decade ago. Blur obsessives will remember it well, and they will remember Bank Holiday too, an obvious reference to the day of rest after the gig, but also a slap to the mouth of those up at six in the morning to write about records.
Blur at its best is a slap to the face though, a wake-up call for how a reunion should go. Loud, bombastic and refined, the four-piece are sounding as fresh as ever and still hold themselves to a high standard, as they should, their crowd does the same. But being there, right in the depths and screaming along to Girls and Boys, all the way through Parklife and the bits of The Narcissist which already sticks in the mind as all the best singles do. Blur steady themselves with hits, deep cuts and new tracks as all good bands do. Suede did it two months ago on the same stage. Pulp did it two days before them. All three are offering the experiences of their heyday with new ideas, fresh skills and a sincerity which pushes nostalgia away. In its place? Absolute quality. Blur is just that, and they show it well on the City Hall stage.