Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon of Blur at the BBC’s Radio Theatre. Image: Phoebe Fox / BBC
This is a tiny Blur show. There are just 300 of us in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House for a concert that is being broadcast live on Radio 2. By contrast, Blur played two nights at the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium the previous week.
Two shows of high emotion played out on the biggest stage as Damon Albarn fought back tears during The Universal, This Is A Low and Under The Westway, shared kisses with bandmate Graham Coxon, and opened his heart like never before. Whether on To The End or Tender, he is a master at evoking yearning by stretching his voice to its limits. But it’s a vulnerability we see from him rarely in life or on stage.
Instead, his frontman persona has evolved into a prowling, bounding ball of energy. He leaps around the stage, imploring the crowd to join in. Even in the confines of a tiny theatre deep within Broadcasting House in London, Albarn fires up the crowd from the opening moments of new song St Charles Square. He then plugs himself into our energy. And he raises the roof. Guitarist Coxon joins in the fun on classic early single Popscene, pogoing before performing a backwards roll mid guitar solo.
Beetlebum sounds increasingly poignant, more than a quarter of a century since its release, breaking out into a cathartic, spiralling wall of guitar noise before a neat segue into Villa Rosie from 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish album.
But there is something new in Albarn and Blur on this return. While Albarn has always been an interesting and interested cultural commentator – impatient, curious, eager to explore new ground – he’s always projected an unshakeable bullish confidence. Now, there is a vulnerability here. And it suits him.
There’s an appreciation for the audience. Actual humility. We can see the fun they are having too. The new, open-hearted Albarn working hard to crack bass player Alex James’s impenetrable façade as Coxon takes the lead on Coffee & TV. And we can see the love. “We all love each other, right?” Albarn asks, before Out Of Time takes us back to 2003 – the year the band first went on an extended hiatus.
Heck, there’s even self-deprecation: “We are going to play a couple of new songs tonight that you haven’t heard yet. Don’t worry, they’re not shit,” Albarn tells the crowd ahead of Russian Strings. And he’s right.
The new songs are special. Particularly The Narcissist, which is as good as anything they’ve ever produced. It sounds like a reckoning with past lives. The sound of a band finding an ease with their position in the world and each other. It is the sound of friends enjoying the simple pleasures of playing together without the crushing weight of expectation or glare of the spotlight. The band smartly announced new album The Ballad of Darren only after it was completed.
Bygones are bygone. Two decades since the band split amid some acrimony, all is well with Blur.
The songs from the new LP, like the huge recent live shows (and those by Pulp this summer) are a reckoning with late-middle age, with the ups and downs of lifelong friendships, with love and loss and legacy. They may also be an acceptance that the band(s) lived through something extreme in the high fame years.
The songs from that Britpop era are now a trip way down memory lane. For Girls and Boys, Albarn says to the security guys at the front of the stage. “I’m getting in the audience for this. Is that going to be a problem?” All around him, fans relive a special time, arms (and cameras) aloft. “It degenerates now. It gets worse,” he says afterwards, as Parklife sees Phil Daniels wheeled out, drummer Dave Rowntree setting a frenetic pace the actor can only just keep up with.
“A long time ago, this would have been on Radio One,” Albarn grins, midway through the song. He’s right, again.
Then, on Advert, another track from Modern Life Is Rubbish, Albarn goes walkabout. He ends up right in the heart of the crowd. In every way. He’s always got in the face of the audience – challenging us, confronting us. Now he’s truly with us.
Perhaps it was the pandemic that allowed these creative minds the space to process finally the feelings and fully mend their fences. That Blur are able to pinpoint and convey these emotions is testimony to their talent for picking up on key cultural moments. They could always tap into the mood of the time. And now, their reunion has coincided with ours.
Because this post-covid melancholia is something many of us have been feeling, but been unable to fully articulate. A feeling of existential, well, something.
It’s there in the new songs. But in this context, you can also hear it in the mass singalong to Tender before The Narcissist reminds us this is no nostalgia trip. It is there in show closer This Is A Low, Albarn’s voice cracking as he perches on the piano, wiping his eyes (he’s not alone). Brilliant new track Barbaric, played live for the first time at the start of the encore, taps into it, another song of reckoning with the past and its emotional toll. And, of course, it’s there in the emotionally charged finale of End Of A Century and The Universal. It really, really, really could happen? It just did.
Which is why a large scale coming together – for Blur at Wembley (or for Pulp at the Sheffield Arena, Finsbury Park, and beyond, or at Glastonbury) – or this more intimate, up-close communing with our collective shared past at BBC’s Radio Theatre feels so vital. It’s healing.
Blur are friends and musical comrades reunited. Each of the 300 people in the room at the BBC brings their own memories and associations to the show. And Blur are revelling in the most public and beautiful of victory laps. They seem as comfortable in this tiny hall as they did on the Wembley stage that meant so much to them.
Whatever comes next, Blur have reached a point of contentment and of ease. Not words we readily associate with rock and roll. But after what we and they have been through, who cares? It looks like we might have made it.
Blur: Radio 2 In Concert and Blur at the BBC is broadcast on 29 July on BBC Two, then on iPlayer for 30 days;Blur: Radio 2 In Concert is now available on BBC Sounds.
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.