Live review

Astoria, London : 8.5.2003

As the rapturous welcome ebbs away, Damon Albarn stands centre stage counting on his fingers. "Its been a while," he ponders. It sure has. Despite the odd obscure appearance at the odd obscure festival, Blur have as good as been away for almost four years. Their stadium gigs at the end of '99 - at which they played all of their singles in chronological order - were as much about gifting the fans a huge spectacle as they were about turning a very large and colourful page in the band's considerable history.

Blur - Click to enlargeTonight they are back, playing the first of a five night residency in a venue they could sell out for at least twenty nights. Or should I say, most of them are back. One of the things that makes tonight's performance even more intriguing is the chance to see how the band works now that Graham Coxon is no longer there. As it turns out, the only real difference is the realisation that they wouldn't be playing Coffee & TV.
    Simon Tong, ex-Verve guitarist who has been brought in to replace Coxon for live duties, might just as well have been a session musician. In fact, you could almost say the same for the band's other surviving members, Alex James and Dave Rowntree.
    Tonight, as with most of Blur's exploits for over a decade, is about the return of Damon Albarn. From the outset, it is clear that Albarn has missed this, and has an air about him that suggests he is a man who is rediscovering how much fun his job can be. The success game has been played and won, if not entirely with Blur then very much so with his other project, Gorillaz, who's debut album sold more copies in the US than Blur's entire back catalogue put together. All the tabloid nonsense of the Britpop years is a distant memory as well, and unlike the Gallaghers, the members of Blur have managed to keep their private lives just that.

As he declares in tonight's opening track Ambulance, "I ain't got nothing to be scared of." Damn right. If one word could sum up tonight's performance, it's fearless. The expectation is that the set will be heavily based on the new album Think Tank, but there is a good mix of old and new, with one or two surprise choices from their back catalogue. Girls & Boys and Beetlebum get the crowd into singalong mode, Song 2 and Popscene create their usual havoc, and Top Man, regarded by most fans as nothing more than an album filler track, gets an unexpected place in the set. The highlight of the older songs, however, is a stunning rendition of For Tomorrow, the end of which is punctuated by a very fired up Damon repeatedly slamming his mic stand into the stage.
    Most of the new songs come and go - the fans having had only four days to get to know the new album - but current single Out Of Time is already a much loved classic, and the out and out punk power of We've Got A File On You - which Damon elects the band should perform twice due to it being about 30 seconds long - suitably whips the crowd into a frenzy.

After over an hour of what has been a truly driven performance from Albarn, you can’t help wondering how he still has the energy to do this. The last song of the evening gives both him and the crowd a chance to catch their breath. Until the day that Blur write a better song than This Is A Low for ending a gig with, it will remain their final song when playing live, and the sigh of dreamy recognition from the crowd is almost audible over the songs unmistakable opening notes.
    Tonight was a reminder. A reminder, not just how good Blur can be, but how good they have always been. The only question left on people's lips after tonight's performance is . . . Graham who?

:: Philip Goodfellow

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