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Blur Rocks the Roseland Ballroom

April 1, 1999 12:00 AM ET

"Could I have some quiet while I concentrate?" pleaded Damon Albarn, shushing his faithful so he could tune his guitar.| The fans obliged. And they kept right on obliging, as Blur are asking quite a lot of their fans these days.

In the wake of all those Big Tours rampaging across America, Blur are playing just two shows. Where most bands have extended sets full of hit singles, Blur chose to play their new album, 13, nearly in its entirety -- in order -- even though it's only been in stores for a week. At least guitarist Graham Coxon had the sense to don a New York Mets T-shirt so the audience would be familiar with something on stage. But whatever critics make of this strategy, you have to give Blur credit. Fans stood rapt before unfamiliar songs full of echoing guitars and ghostly harmonies, and left satisfied, if mystified.

The first treat of the evening was the Boys Choir of Harlem, who ringed the stage for the powerful opener, the seven-minute single "Tender." The black-vested choir boys shouted "Come on, come on, come on/Get through it," like theirlives depended on it, while Albarn boomed, "Love's the greatest thing," inhis Bowie-esque basso, not sounding entirely convinced. But 13 is in somerespects a break-up album, and Albarn was totally believable mourningabsent love -- "Tender is the ghost/The ghost I love the most" -- like he wasgonna get through it after all.

The band was in fine form on the jaunty strumfest "Coffee & TV," and even better on "1992," a dysphoric ballad that turns on the inevitable couplet, "You loved my bed/You took the other instead." The intensity rose and climaxed, Albarn blowing and bending melancholy notes through a melodica, Coxon kneeling as he bitterly scraped the strings of his Telecaster. The album's gorgeous centerpiece, a trance-dance epic called "Battle," soared and shimmered on the strength of guitars, keyboards and vocals, but suffered in the rhythm department. It wasn't clear whether the muddy beat was the fault of the soundman or if drummer Dave Rowntree was faking the funk. Either way, the audience remained receptive.

Still, even though Blur played well, their set had a muted quality. When a band becomes as popular as Blur has, fans tend to go to their concerts to commune with their idols rather than just hear some live music. As the audience quietly took in the new songs, it was evident that most weren't going to have a mythical experience. The material was all just too fresh to transport anybody.

That all changed during the short encore. "There's No Other Way," "Pop Scene" and "Song 2" (better known as "Woo Hoo") all rocked hard enough to shred wallpaper, and everybody knew it. For "Song 2," Albarn held the mic out to the crowd, and the crowd not only shouted hearty "Woo Hoo"'s to beat the band, but even took care of the first verse for him. Now, that's not asking too much.

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