Over a decade ago, two groups of young musicians wrestled over the hearts of Britain. But last Thursday, at Blur's first of two shows at London's Hyde Park, the answer (for the assembled masses, at least) was clear: Oasis who?
Frontman Damon Albarn took the stage in his unofficial uniform — a black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo and loose-fitting jeans — prompting the ocean of fans into rapturous cheering. Before their 2009 reunion, it had been seven long years since the four original members of Blur performed together (Graham Coxon left in 2002 citing internal conflict and alcoholism). While Albarn had busied himself with Gorillaz and assorted projects, fans continually clamored for more Blur — the band is, after all, an Anglo-Saxon institution as inherently English as tea. And without much acknowledgment to the crowd, Coxon, the long-missed axe-wielder, came out onstage and started the night with the decidedly old school "She's So High," the Manchester-influenced opening track for 1991's debut Leisure and the band's first hit single.
It wasn't until the second song — no, not "Song 2" — that the masses maniacally leaped in the air in unison. "Girls & Boys," the global synth-pop hit from 1994's Parklife, sounded charged and immediate. It was becoming obvious that Hyde Park's sound system was not overwhelmingly loud, so the band and crowd would have to compensate with their own respective energy. Albarn, the charmer, ran into the photojournalist pit and then ran over to the fans, prompting screams and zombie-like reaches.
This was the only way to make an unending audience feel somewhat intimate. "The last two weeks have been extraordinary," the frontman told the fans, seeming sincerely appreciative, "but we're here now," and went straight in to "Tracy Jacks" allowing the song finish the thought for him. Last week Blur closed Glastonbury with a set list quite similar to the Hyde Park gigs.
Unusually, it wasn't until the seventh song that Blur ventured over into material from their more experimental, less Britpoppy latter-phase. The echoey riff for "Beetlebum," from 1997's self-titled lo-fi-flavored album, elastically bounced around the park. Then, they performed "Out of Time," the only song that night from 2003's underrated and mostly Coxon-free Think Tank. "Tender," an epic highlight, followed with an inspiring gospel-like sing-along, loud and anthemic like a 50,000 person backing choir had been hired for the gig. And while the two stage-side video screens mostly focused on Albarm and Coxon throughout the night — after all, this was ostensibly their reunion — drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James, both who never left the band, held down the rhythm section. James' beefy and precise bass was the perfect compliment to Coxon's sometimes frenetic and unhurried guitar playing.
The overall chemistry of the band was, ironically high and poignantly epic at the 1994 ballad "To The End." "And it looks like we might have made it," Albarn crooned to his bandmates, "Yes it looks like we've made it to the end." Let's hope that that's not the case. America next?
"She's So High"
"Girls & Boys"
"There's No Other Way"
"Out of Time"
"Coffee & TV" (introduced by Coxon humbly announcing, "Hi. I'm singing this next song")
"End Of A Century"
"To The End"
"This Is A Low"
"Death Of A Party"