Blur's Damon Albarn paid tribute to double gold medal winner Mo Farah last night, as Britain's alt-rock elite marked the end of London 2012 by following the example of the nation's finest athletes and delivering on the biggest stage.
Albarn described the distance runner, who won gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, as "an incredible, inspiring human being" and even copied Farah's signature "Mobot" celebration as he introduced "Song 2" at the BT London Live Closing Ceremony Celebration Concert in front of 80,000 flag-waving fans. While the official Closing Ceremony across town in the Olympic Stadium largely concentrated on Britain's mainstream pop heritage, this parallel celebration in Hyde Park saw four generations of alternative rockers live up to the gig's "Best of British" billing.
The concert began in mid-afternoon with Bombay Bicycle Club playing their moody indie-dance tunes in warm sunshine before the arrival of New Order. "I'm going to get a gold medal at the end of this," quipped New Order singer Bernard Sumner. "Although it could quite easily come out bronze with the amount of talent on this stage."
Indeed, New Order at first struggled to make a winning impression. Downbeat early songs such as the opening instrumental "Elegia" and Joy Division's "Isolation" did not quite match the air of celebration, while at times the crowd seemed rather more familiar with "Bizarre Love Triangle" than Sumner did himself. But once the band – now playing without bassist Peter Hook, who is not part of the current reunion – hit its stride on "True Faith," it surged over the finish line with rocked-up versions of "Blue Monday," "Temptation" and Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." "A '70s song with a '70s-style ending," Sumner said with a laugh as New Order departed in a hail of power chords.
The Specials, meanwhile, remain synonymous with Britain's political and social upheaval of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Although any fans old enough to remember those days would have noted the irony of Terry Hall and Co. playing to a crowd waving Union Jacks – the flag that, in those days, was synonymous with the Far Right supporters who would often disrupt the band's gigs – this was the Specials in comparatively feel-good mode. So they left "Ghost Town" out of the set, perhaps feeling its air of urban desolation would have jarred with the national mood. Instead, after authentically angry opener "Do the Dog," the Specials – also playing without an original member, in their case Jerry Dammers – concentrated on more laidback, if still lyrically edgy, songs like "Do Nothing" and "Stereotype." They also dedicated a joyful rendition of "A Message to You, Rudy" to sprinter Usain Bolt.
Blur has never had trouble articulating an air of national celebration: Its Parklife album was essentially the soundtrack of the U.K. when mid-Nineties euphoria swept the nation. Last night's gig – which had been billed by many, if not necessarily the band themselves, as likely to be its last-ever show – took on a party atmosphere from the moment they interrupted big-screen footage of the official closing ceremony with a boisterous rendition of "Girls and Boys." On a stage set recreating the Westway, an iconic, elevated section of London highway, Blur was the perfect band to pay tribute to London and what Albarn called "the extraordinary two weeks we've had in this country."
Although songs like "London Loves" ("And we love London!" shouted Albarn), "For Tomorrow" and new song "Under the Westway" are rooted in the U.K. capital, a wide-ranging setlist showed there's more to Blur than the simple swagger of its Britpop heyday. Syrian oud player Khyam Allami joined the band for "Out of Time," prompting Albarn to ask the crowd to spare a thought for athletes unable to compete in the Olympics due to the Syrian conflict. "Tender" stretched its gospel-inspired singalong to epic proportions. And Blur were not afraid to include more obscure songs, including "Young and Lovely," "Trimm Trabb" and "Caramel," which found guitarist Graham Coxon in his element.
The crowd's patience during that section – and for tolerating a lack of volume at some crucial points – was rewarded with knockabout versions of the band's biggest hits, "Country House" and "Parklife," which featured guest appearances from actor Phil Daniels and U.K. comedian Harry Enfield, the latter dressed in drag as a traditional British tea lady.
The band closed its set with some of its most emotional songs, including a final rendition of "The Universal" that left even the normally garrulous Albarn lost for words. Similarly, there was no comment from the stage about the band's own future. All four members of the group – completed by bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree – seemed happy in each other's company again, although there may have been significance in Albarn taking a last, lingering look at the emotional scenes in the crowd before leaving the stage.
"Girls and Boys"
"Coffee and TV"
"Out of Time"
"Young and Lovely"
"No Distance Left to Run"
"This Is a Low"
"Under the Westway"
"End of a Century"