Blur kickstarted the next phase of their comeback with a tiny, fanclub-only gig in London Friday night, airing songs from their new album The Magic Whip for the first time.
Taking to the stage at West London club Mode, frontman Damon Albarn told the 300-strong crowd of competition winners that the band would play the album "in sequence, from beginning to end."
At last month's press conference to announce the new album – Blur’s first since 2003's Think Tank and first with guitarist Graham Coxon since 1999's 13 – Albarn had stressed the importance of fresh material to the band's return. But, while the songs were new, some tracks harked back to the classic sound of previous Blur incarnations. Opener "Lonesome Street," with its chugging guitars and lyrical references to catching "the 5:14 to East Grinstead," could have fitted snugly onto 1995 album The Great Escape.
"New World Towers" was folkier and more esoteric, echoing Albarn's recent solo work, as Coxon played gentle arpeggios, boosted by backing singers and a string section perched on the small venue's balcony.
"Go Out," the first track to be released from the album last month, followed, sounding punkier and more hypnotic than on record and prompting the crowd to sing along with its "oh-oh-oh-oh" refrain. "Ice Cream Man" and "Thought I Was a Spaceman" were more understated — Albarn swished a tambourine as he worked the crowd — before "I Broadcast" took the band into almost "Song 2"-esque noisy guitar territory with Albarn adding his best sneering vocals.
The band — which had earlier played an afternoon warm-up set for family and friends — looked relaxed and up-for-it throughout the rapturously-received show, with Albarn in particular in rabble-rousing mode. Things slowed down again for "My Terracotta Heart," featuring falsetto vocals from Albarn, before "There Are Too Many of Us," which premiered online Friday, brought an “Out of Time”-style downbeat lyrics/uplifting tune double whammy, with Albarn saluting drummer Dave Rowntree during its military beat-driven coda.
Bassist Alex James took center stage at the start of the lightly funky "Ghost Ship," while the post-punk beats of "Pyongyang" – a new song about Albarn's visit to North Korea – showcased the band's experimental edge.
"Ong Ong," meanwhile, is the most instantly catchy song Blur has written in years, powered by "na-na-nas" and a rowdy chorus of "I wanna be with you." Fans immediately sang the chorus with gusto to Albarn’s evident delight. The group ended the set with the moody final song "Mirrorball."
"I hope you've got something out of it," said Albarn, before announcing "Trouble in the Message Centre," the evening’s sole old song taken from 1994’s classic Parklife album. Albarn said the band hadn't played it live for 20 years, but there were no signs of ring rust as Coxon punked up its jerky riff and the frontman sprayed the pogoing crowd with water before bowing as he left the stage.
Blur will next take a bow in front of a rather larger crowd – its next scheduled show is at the 65,000-capacity British Summer Time festival in London’s Hyde Park on June 20th. The Magic Whip is set for release on April 28th.
1. "Lonesome Street"
2. "New World Towers"
3. "Go Out"
4. "Ice Cream Man"
5. "Thought I Was a Spaceman"
6. "I Broadcast"
7. "My Terracotta Heart"
8. "There Are Too Many of Us"
9. "Ghost Ship"
11. "Ong Ong"
13. "Trouble in the Message Centre"