Between the Kentucky Derby and the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, for most, making the news last weekend was tougher than usual. Fortunately for this blithering fly on the music hall wall, Blur have never been like most. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d best get ready to rumble.
It’s been a long time since Blur played New York City. Barring their Thursday night performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the brit-brat foursome in question last played the Big Apple in 2000 while supporting 13, their last album to feature all four members in earnest–until The Magic Whip‘s release last month. It’s an engaging, if slightly uneven record that acknowledges the band’s varying sonic phases while opening up the conversation as to where they might go in the future. Make no mistake, while Blur may never release another record, their latest effort, written and recorded over an accidental, obligation-free, five-day period abroad in Hong Kong (and briefly in London), serves as definitive proof that they very well could. But man, oh man, there’s no need for proof of virility after a live show like the one I saw, no sir! Hell, Blur are more ready than ever to headline festivals worldwide.
For the sake of clarity, your humble narrator proudly swore off the aid of stimulants, alcohol, or otherwise for the duration of the show, immediately making an exception for two tall boys in addition to the occasional jolt or pick-me-up as needed so as to maintain the peak critiquing abilities required by those of us scum guilty of perhaps unworthily dragging the word “journalist” or “reviewer” through the mud—constant vigilance is key, folks. Constant. Vigilance. Upon first stepping behind the mic, Damon rings a small xylophone of possibly Asian origin. Enter, Jim Morrison: Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin. Blackout.
Leading with rockin’ Magic Whip opener “Lonesome Street,” the band could not have anticipated what would result: The loudest ovation of the entire show came upon its completion. Seasoned frontman Damon Albarn accepts the three-minute barrage of applause graciously, flashing his famous gold-speckled smile as guitarist Graham Coxon joins in with his characteristically sheepish grin. New York is thrilled to have Blur back and judging by the raging sea of cheers, claps, and whoops, it is clear to see that the feeling is mutual even from the show’s start.
In contrast to a project like Gorillaz, Blur have never relied heavily on spectacle as a means of engaging a crowd, instead using the combination of Albarn’s enthralling strut and art-school-cool with the mutated yet popish stylings of Coxon’s Telecaster to draw an audience. They’ve come a long way from the silliness of the later brit-pop years, producing a brand of barebones rock n’ roll that continues to save them from becoming no more than hat-holding caricatures looking for a buck amongst the rubble of Cool Britannia as the early 90s enters nostalgia. This is no more evident than on “Go Out,” the third song of the set, one that immediately sets the whole room ablaze. Damon paces the stage with the energy of a snarling, punkish teenager, gesturing frantically at the audience as he does. He occasionally gets right in the face of those front and center, spitting lyrics forcefully with rabid, full moon eyes. Each phrase from Coxon’s guitar explodes like a jet engine taking flight, the sound-force generated behind each individual stroke was enough to knock out Mayweather cold at fifty feet. That’s a Trey Zenker, hundred percent guarantee or your money back. Scout’s honor. And, Christ, is Coxon actually smiling? Are they all actually smiling? Are they all actually having fun?
Blur are at their best while playing The Magic Whip’s more physical tracks, namely “Lonesome Street,” “Go Out,” “I Broadcast,” and “Ong Ong.” Such is the case because said tracks allow the band to unleash the total strength of its arsenal, fully utilizing the “p” bass stylings of puckish (not punkish!) playboy Alex James in coordination with David Roundtree’s knack for a simple yet driving rhythm. To answer an earlier question, yes, they are having a fucking blast. This is not my beautiful house! This is not the same band I witnessed headlining Coachella twenty feet from the Main Stage two years back, a group noticeably unsure of its place not only on stage but within the context of the country it was playing in, potentially fearful of lackluster reception… This is not my beautiful wife!
But it is. This is Blur, Mr. Byrne and tonight I witness slower tracks charged with an undeniable, if shimmering strength, one inspiring of at least a shadow of hope rather than of complete despair. “Pyongyang” takes the cake with Damon powerfully channeling an internal sadness akin to that heard on Parklife’s “This Is A Low.” Here, as red and blue lights wander around the stage, all eyes are fixed at Graham, crumpled over his guitar, demanding so much of it that I am genuinely afraid it might collapse in on itself like a dying star. Here’s a jolt to black holes, I guess. To infinity… and beyond!
That The Magic Whip was written and recoded in such brevity makes a lot of sense when seeing it live as the emotional and energetic highs and lows of the album translate, without exception, perfectly to the performance. Moreover, this is also perhaps the most Graham-centric album since 1997’s self-titled release, made abundantly clear in a live setting, which frankly enhanced the experience as a whole. Even the certified foot stomping, crowd pleasing, money making “Ong Ong” (known to me as “Mr. Tembo Pt. 2”) is heavily improved by Coxon’s perfectly ugly guitar, which, mind you, is noisier and even brattier than ever before.
It is interesting to note how the fluctuating visibility of James versus Coxon and vise versa seems to change as one of the two takes on the roll of personifying the band’s group mentality. For instance, Alex James, the handsome, turtleneck wearing, cigarette smoking, cocksure bassist seems to have personified the band’s mentality in their high Brit-pop days. By contrast, Graham Coxon, their bespectacled, soft-spoken, and notoriously uncool guitarist seems to personify the band’s current mentality today (and arguably since 1997’s Blur with the exception of 2003’s Think Tank for which Coxon was almost entirely absent).
Their current mentality is one that might be best defined as “mature,” or at least “seasoned.” They have come a long way, learning hard truths in the process, and yet they still have managed to stay true to the boyish art-school foolishness that defined the former part of their career, winking at it at opportune moments such as with mid-album pick-up “I Broadcast,” a blatant nod to Parklife. Only “Ice Cream Man,” from which the record derives its name, was excluded: “we haven’t figured out how to play that,” said a laughing Damon of the record’s most Gorillaz-esuqe work.
The show ends with a back-to-back-to-back encore of “Beetlebum,” “Trouble In The Message Center,” and that stadium shaker “Song 2,” during which it feels as if the floor may collapse. I do not have a fear in the world, though, sent straight to the stratosphere by this three-song cherry on top of an already career reinvigorating performance. A true Grand Slam. No drink nor drug on the market gets you feeling this way and it will likely be many, many years before scientists might induce such a state of happiness (or any emotion for that matter) with the effectiveness and precision of the Albarn/Coxon duo live. Get on board. The train is leaving the station on this one, bub. Such marks the triumphant return of Blur to the American stage. All hail these conquering heroes, these heavyweight champs, once and future kings. Over and out.