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Blur (Wolves Civic, Wednesday)


Park Life

A reunited Blur warmed up for their Glastonbury and Hyde Park mega-shows in front of a capacity crowd at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on Wednesday night, Steve Beauchampé reports.

This is of course not just a concert, but an occasion. The second coming of Blur, seven years after guitarist Graham Coxon quit, six years after what many believed would be their final album and tour.

That said, nowadays (almost) everyone reforms eventually. Blur - with Coxon back in tow - just did it before their shows could be billed as ‘anniversary’ or ‘nostalgia’, the band’s work still sufficiently fresh to be considered relevant and contemporary, their joint critical faculties sharp enough that new material is expected and hoped for rather than slightly feared by fans worried at the possibility of it besmirching their legacy.

The band’s pre-Glastonbury and Hyde Park gigs may be billed as warm ups, trial runs for the main event(s), but with anticipation sky high, and tickets as sought-after as for any recent West Midlands concert, nobody wants anything less than a full-blown Blur performance.

That Wolverhampton is on this very exclusive list for Colchester’s most famous sons owes much to the fact that their fan club was founded in Staffordshire in the 1990s (the band formed in 1991) and that many of their early road crew hailed from the area.

Singer Damon Albarn (who unofficially announced a Wolves date during a radio interview last December) is quoted as saying that several of the band’s most memorable early shows were staged at the Civic.

Proving the adage that absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, the band enter to a lengthy, exultant, reception, Albarn bouncing on his feet by the microphone, like a substitute itching to get into the game, before launching into opener She’s So High. But it’s song two, Girls and Boys that truly animates the crowd as groups of thirty-something males push through the throng to join the rough and tumble at the front.

Damon has words of thanks to a couple of local Blur-ites, Stuart and Smog (I think), whom he credits as partially responsible for reuniting the band. Then we’re straight into There’s No Other Way, Jubilee and Bedhead. I’ll happily acknowledge that Britpop - and much (though certainly not all) of Blur’s contribution to it - holds limited attraction for me. Combined with the nearby macho melee, punctuated by the repeated hurling of partially full plastic beer glasses by some of the half-wits amongst it, this is not yet a candidate for gig of the year.

But as Coxon plays the opening chords to Beetlebum, the first track on 1997’s Blur album, and the song that signalled the band’s move away from the narrow and predictable confines of Britpop, things take a decided turn for the better.

It’s one of their best numbers and is rapturously received, starting a run of songs from the second half of their (initial) career, when the band travelled increasingly experimental roads. Out of Time is next up, the highlight of their last album Thinktank. Albarn’s on acoustic guitar now, an instrument Coxon takes up for the start of Trimm-Trabb, before reverting to electric for the denouement, at which point Albarn has switched to piano.

Coffee and TV features Coxon on vocals, a deceptively placid song, which builds into a fierce and memorable guitar solo before calming down (or breaking down tonight…more practice required here!) at the end. Tender follows. A 7-minute spiritual, gospel-style song, delivered with the support of a brass section and four backing vocalists (an ensemble who contribute in various combinations - and with mixed results - to much of tonight’s set); with bass guitarist Alec James on double bass, it’s a majestically anthemic moment.

Audience participation on Country House has much less finesse, being pure singalong and Albarn spends no small part of it perched directly above the crowd, held up by stewards and adoring fans. A few more forays into their early-mid 1990s back catalogue before Parklife sends the crowd truly ballistic and the free beer starts raining down once again - oh for an umbrella! The rather lovely, though less manically received, End of The Century, To The End and This Is A Low bring pre-encore proceedings to a close.

We get a brace of these; highlight of the first is Song 2...cue more crowd mania for a track whose lyrics are as bonkers as the audience’s reaction to it. The second includes two more of Blur’s greatest musical interventions, For Tomorrow and traditional show closer The Universal. If it’s possible for the community singing to get more thunderous, it does.

Next time we see Blur (Sunday, Glastonbury, BBC TV) the crowd will be thirty times larger, the adulation thirty times louder. Ditto their two Hyde Park shows next week. Blur are emphatically back, Coxon in tow. New material will surely follow in 2010 with the normal cycle of recording and touring still allowing both Albarn and Coxon to pursue their critically acclaimed musical and artistic side projects, Alex James to tend to his farm and drummer Dave Rowntree to continue his careers in science and political activism.

As nearly 3,000 people bellowed tonight in Wolverhampton - Woo-hoo!



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