Earlier this week, Blur released an album called The Magic Whip, the first in 16 years from their classic four-man lineup. It’s a strong album, one that hits many familiar sweet spots from their days as the most consistently inventive band in Nineties Britpop. It sounded even better last night at Blur’s show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
The free show, hastily arranged with Converse Rubber Tracks, was presented as a gift to Blur’s fans. And it was that – Blur have scarcely toured North America in more than a decade, and getting to see them in a venue as intimate as the 550-capacity Brooklyn club was a surreal treat. For the band, it was also a chance to play salesmen: They performed The Magic Whip start to finish (minus the tricky “Ice Cream Man”), making the case directly to fans that this is an album worth caring about in terms more vivid than any Spotify stream or pre-release press could manage.
That gambit worked particularly thrillingly on guitar-heavy songs like the growling “Go Out,” the punchy, crunchy “Lonesome Street,” and the sunny “I Broadcast.” This is a sound and an energy that none of lead singer Damon Albarn’s many other projects, as great as they are, can create. It’s incredibly fun to see in person, and it felt like Albarn, singing over Graham Coxon’s distorted noise, Alex James’ swaggering bass and Dave Rowntree’s solid drumming, was where he belonged.
Albarn isn’t much for nostalgia, and his feelings about reuniting with his old band are complicated. “There’s a part of me that was always trying to avoid doing this,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “But there’s a part of me that delights in it, too.” Last night, he was all-in. The singer strode across the stage with the biggest grin on his face, liberally splashing the crowd with bottled water. The other guys were smiling, too.
“I suppose we owe it to you to play a few old songs,” Albarn said after a brief encore break. They gave us three. 1997’s “Beetlebum” was glorious; the whole room sang along to Albarn’s sighing falsetto chorus, and Coxon built up to a raging feedback bonfire. 1994’s “Trouble in the Message Centre” was a sweaty present for the true heads (of which there were many, judging by the crowd’s reaction).
Finally, they closed with 1997’s “Song 2,” their biggest American hit. A subversive jolt of satire when it was first written, “Song 2” has long since flipped into a sincere headbanger. All around the room, grown men pogoed high in the air and spilled their beers in excitement. Of course the fans went wilder for those old favorites than the new album they’ve had barely a week to get to know. But last night, Blur proved they are very much alive and well.