In rock and roll, as in most things, survival is sweet revenge. A survival distinguished by renewed vigor, then decisive triumph, is even better. When Blur – the original, reunited quartet of singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree – took the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden on October 23rd, they did it not as a nostalgia act, although there was plenty of roaring-Nineties fondness to go around in the second half of the set and the encores: the alt-rock sturm und drang of "Beetlebum"; "Song 2"'s speed-pop rodeo yell; the anguished pop-art sighs in "This Is a Low" and "The Universal."
Instead, Blur frontloaded their long-delayed sold-out debut at the Garden – part of a quick North American victory lap in venues, like the Hollywood Bowl three nights earlier, that would have been way beyond their reach even at the height of Britpop – with enough material from their strong return to record, the eerie electro-R&B modernism of The Magic Whip (Warner Bros./Parlophone), to qualify as substantial, deserving resurrection. Opening with the dark, urgent chant "Go Out" from The Magic Whip, jumping back to the full psychedelic throttle of "There's No Other Way" on Blur's 1991 debut, Leisure, then turning forward again to the thumping ennui of "Lonesome Street," the group sounded whole and resolved – comfortable in its juvenilia, certain of its present strength.
"It took us 25 years to get here," Albarn noted early in the show, savoring the extra relish in the waiting. Later, during the mounting climax of "To the End" from Blur's 1994 U.K. breakthrough, Parklife, Albarn fell to his knees and bent back like an Olympic runner who had just crossed a finish line – a ham in clover, with the work, quality and marathon to back up his melodrama.
The Britpop War
Here is a rock milestone no one is celebrating in this country: the 20th anniversary of Blur Vs. Oasis, the silly British-tabloid-manufactured war, which peaked in 1995 with the same-day release of those bands' respective singles, "Country House" and "Roll With It." Blur technically took that prize, but Oasis ended up selling mega-million copies of their second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? Oasis also made it to the Garden first, although by the time I saw them there in 2008, they were running on fumes and on their way to fraternal implosion.
But Blur were always the more exuberant, physically expressive attraction, even in frustrated straits. When I saw them in 1994 at the Academy, a small dancehall a few streets up from the Garden, they were pressing the stumbling fortunes of Parklife in the U.S. with enraged force: Albarn leaping from a racing crouch into a flurry of scissor kicks, Coxon wrenching feedback from his guitar as if he could see Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett hanging on the dog-track rail during "Parklife."
And they always had, on record, the urge to surge: the charge out of Blur's shimmering guitars to the underrated art-pop confrontation of 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish; the desperate energy and fear of falling behind the New Carnaby Street euphoria of Parklife. The contrarian alt-Yankee edge and clang of 1997's Blur broke in America too late – the band did not survive Coxon's departure in 2002. At the Garden, Albarn – a restless solo artist and serial collaborator – pointed out elliptically, via a story about Lou Reed, that he'd already been here: headlining a show in 2010 with his hip-hop project Gorillaz.
Hits and Mission
In a couple of minor ways, Blur's big night at the Garden wasn't quite as stunning as their New York show last spring: an intimate promo blast at Music Hall of Williamsburg where they performed virtually all of The Magic Whip, proving that its studio alchemy – a flurry of sessions in Hong Kong finessed back in Britain with longtime producer Stephen Street – could be a compelling live experience. The PA mix at the Garden often seemed too far in the red, brutalizing sonic details and subtleties of mix on that album and neutralizing the expensive extras in Blur's entourage, especially the strings and backing vocals. And at times, during the hits, Albarn's attempts to get the audience to pick up the vocals fell shy of mass hysteria; in Britain, navigating the roundabout word games in "Girls and Boys" while blind drunk is practically national service.
But the future-dub suspense of "Thought I Was a Spaceman," from the new album, made sense in the big, rude reverb – Coxon's heated jangle and amp distress, lighting the air around Albarn, evoked both the guitarist's early, jubilant droning on Leisure and his rattling fusions of Pavement and Jimi Hendrix on Blur. And after Fred Armisen's star turn in L.A. recreating Quadrophenia-movie mod Phil Daniels' recitation on "Parklife," Albarn took a flutter on a handful of fans plucked from the floor, scoring with a young black woman who nailed that rap like a born Cockney.
"It looks like we made it to the end," Albarn sang in "To the End," a certainty in numbers that kept turning up all evening: in the gospel pastiche "Tender" from 1999's 13; the young, clinging lovers of "For Tomorrow" on Modern Life Is Rubbish; even during the brittle isolation of 13's "Trimm Trabb." Albarn sang much of that song bent over a cluster of fans in the front, as if lying on a bed of adulation; at one point, as he intoned the line "I sleep alone," a hand reached up like contradiction, stroking his head with a soothing-angel's touch.
"Tonight, for us, is about saying thank you," Albarn announced before singing "End of a Century" from Parklife. It was actually something he said repeatedly, citing friends, family, the crowd and colleagues like Street. But Blur at the Garden was also a victory earned – celebrated with perfect timing.