Less than three months after a surprise press conference at which they announced new album The Magic Whip, their first for 12 years, Blur ambushed New York by announcing a free show at Williamsburg’s intimate Music Hall, with tickets assigned to fans by lottery.
Having played their often glorious back catalogue extensively when they reformed six years ago, this gig was never going to be a nostalgia-fest. Indeed, Blur play The Magic Whip in its entirety apart from one track, Ice Cream Man – Damon Albarn telling a fan who asks for it: “We haven’t worked out how to play that yet” – and in the same order as on record, just as they did when launching 1997’s Blur at the Astoria in London, and 13 two years later at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios.
Fans are rewarded for their patience with an encore of three old songs: Beetlebum, which sounds swoony, insidious and slightly sinister; Trouble in the Message Centre, from Parklife; and a reliably exhilarating pelt through Song 2, their biggest American hit.
It’s all about the new album, then. But while it’s by no means their most accessible work, The Magic Whip sounds convincing live: playful, complex and often melancholic, particularly on the gorgeous standout song Pyongyang. It’s also heartwarming to see Blur, whose relationship has often been fractious, playing together with an air of genuine camaraderie, with a bearhug between Damon and Dave Rowntree after There Are Too Many Of Us, which manages to be both wistful and aggressive.
Dressed in regulation Blur attire, with Rowntree in a black Fred Perry and Alex James’s famous fringe still lustrous after all these years (the formerly ever-present fag in his mouth has gone, however), and Albarn executing a few of his unmistakably ungainly jumps during I Broadcast, Blur also demonstrate that something else has been retained down the years – the spirit of risk and experimentation, a quietly relentless desire to expand the parameters of what they do.
Embellished with Graham Coxon’s gorgeous slide guitar, My Terracotta Heart sounds poignant, ramshackle and tender; New World Towers is at once intimate and highly theatrical, Albarn channeling English folk music and Anthony Newley at once; Ong Ong is a simple pop song scuffed up and made weird, like so many of Blur’s best tunes.
A sweat-drenched James makes a moue as Blur play the Morricone-gone-indie album closer Mirrorball, and it feels great to have the band back as a going concern, not just a machine for cranking out the hits. As the hysterical audience response to Song 2 proves, the fact that they can do that too is the icing on the cake.
- This piece was amended on 2 May to correct the spelling of Rowntree and the title of There Are Too Many Of Us; Trouble in the Message Centre is on Parklife.
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