Eighteen years is a long time in the life of a band. Since English band Blur last played a gig on Australia’s shores in October 1997, they’ve released platinum selling albums, disbanded, reformed, headlined several gigs in London’s Hyde Park, pulled out of Big Day Out festival and released their much anticipated eighth album The Magic Whip earlier this year.
Their gig at the Qantas Credit Union Arena in Sydney’s Chinatown on Saturday was always going to be a massive deal.
Not only are they one of Britain’s most treasured acts of the last 25 years, but a personal favourite. The four-piece entered the stage against a backdrop of glittering mirrorballs and oriental album art. Floppy haired bassist Alex James kicked off his sandals (this guy means business) as drummer Dave Rowntree started the beat of the ferocious “Go Out”, guitar wizard Graham Coxon adding layers of spiky reverb.
“So…18 years,” said singer Damon Albarn. “We’re really f**king jet lagged but it doesn’t matter. It’s Saturday night!”
Baggy ’90s hit “There’s No Other Way” and recent single “Lonesome Street” got the crowd moving, while the “Badhead” reflection on fractured relationships sounded even more poignant from middle-aged men. “Ghost Ship” was a highlight; a slinky slice of blue-eyed soul. Albarn attributed part of the new album’s lyrics to the time he spent in Sydney last December during his solo tour, the crowd responding accordingly.
Their first album in 12 years, The Magic Whip may just be their best work yet. Mostly recorded in Hong Kong during an unexpected break in touring in May 2013, it captures a strained sense of alienation that harks back to Parklife’s disillusionment at the world’s “coca-colonisation” of relentless commercials, neon lights and identical shopping malls. Albarn’s lyrics strike a line between awe and weary dismay at the city he likened to “a human colony in the future”.
My only disappointment was that they only played six songs from the new album. While “Parklike”, “Tender”, “Coffee & TV” and “Song 2″ sparked mass sing-alongs, I’d have loved to see them tackle more of the new material; for example the sparse, Greensleeves-influenced “New World Towers” or the exhausted, tremolo heavy “Mirrorball” (perhaps the best thing they’ve ever committed to tape and what could be a fitting closer to a spectacular recording career).
I appreciate that Australian Blur fans have waited 18 years and want to hear the hits. I guess I should count myself lucky; the band played only three songs from The Magic Whip for the Splendour In The Grass festival crowd the following night.
But understand my exasperation when a girl in front of me actually listened back to her Instagram clip of “Song 2″ during the divine “Pyongyang”, a beautifully melancholic reflection on North Korea that could have been the centrepiece of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. It seemed a huge portion of the crowd were simply less interested in the subtler tunes that didn’t allow a boozy sing-along.
Despite the Blur’s band members’ slog of other commitments (Albarn and Coxon both have other musical projects; James is a journalist and cheesemaker; Rowntree a DJ and solicitor), their level of enthusiasm showed Blur are no side project. Albarn serenaded the audience with zeal, Coxon rolled around on the floor with his guitar like a drunk youth and Rowntree’s hard, punky hitting was impressive from a 51 year-old MP. Alex James, bless him, with his lithe postures and funky sex faces, looked like a dad dancing at a concert (which I suppose, he is).
“Sorry it’s taken so long for us to come back,” Albarn says before the evening’s final song—a euphoric version of “The Universal” packed with string samples and misty-eyed melodic punch.
New album or not, Blur was here to showcase a career-spanning back catalogue to suit the occasion.