“I didn’t expect it would be like this,” Damon Albarn ponders, a few songs into blur’s biggest headline show to date.
It’s easy to think that, for a band as culturally significant, two nights at Wembley Stadium is just another appropriately big show, crowning their latest ‘mini-retirement’ comeback. They’ve headlined Glastonbury and multiple Hyde Park extravaganzas – this is almost the norm now, right? If it is, it certainly doesn’t feel it. On hallowed ground, under the arch, where the two twin towers used to stand, there’s magic in the air.
It certainly means a lot to them. While anyone suggesting they couldn’t have done similar at the height of their first bash at superstardom might be underselling what a juggernaut blur were, there’s little question that better things come to those who wait. 30 years on from those early days of Britpop, they’re arguably the only one of those major league alumni who feel big enough to pull off a pair of shows like this, while also still creating right at the top of their game. Rather than compare them to their 90s peers, it’s time to start placing them firmly at the top end of the pantheon of the greatest British bands – a conversation that, over time, is becoming more and more favourable to Colchester’s finest export.
One thing’s for sure – no other band of their vintage has a songbook suited for a huge London show that comes even close to the majesty of blur’s. Opening with the brash, tense blast of ‘St. Charles Square’ – one of only two nods to their new album ‘The Ballad of Darren’ – what follows is a show rammed to the rafters with genuine moments. ‘There’s No Other Way’, ‘Popscene’, ‘Tracey Jacks’ and ‘Beetlebum’ follow quickly, as blur’s core dynamics crank back into gear like they never went away. Even in their 50s, the archetypes remain. Damon Albarn prowling the stage (and beyond) like a particularly pesky child, Graham Coxon a whirring tornado of chaos, bending his guitar into all manner of shapes and sounds. Alex James is still determined to look cool, calm and mildly aloof at all times, while Dave Rowntree glues them all down long enough to get a song out, one of the most brilliant yet somehow underrated drummers of a generation.
It’s not just the raw material that makes tonight feel special. For a stadium show, blur have less of the now-expected ‘fancy shit’ than most would. There’s no runway, no second stage, no pyros. That’s not to say it’s not an impressive show – they have a polar bear with an air siren for a gob – but the character from the band on stage is more potent than any light show. So much so that even songs never intended for stadiums – ‘Trimm Trabb’ might just be the least ‘stadium rock’ number ever performed at the home of English football – work brilliantly.
‘Under The Westway’, getting a first airing in approaching a decade, still sounds like the true standout of blur’s second age, while ‘Country House’ and Damon’s Deerstalker no longer feels like it has the albatross of chart battles past round its neck. That it’s followed by a particularly exuberant Phil Daniels on ‘Parklife’ and an emotional ‘To The End’ is enough to send the audience hoarse.
Of course, ‘Song 2’ will always set an crowd off, such is its international fame, while main set closer ‘This Is A Low’ remains the best thing the band have done, Coxon’s wild, goosebumps-on-goosebumps solo still sounding like it’s arrived from another planet.
The encore, though, is something else entirely. After a first bash through ‘Lot 105’ in almost 30 years – with a Wembley sing-a-long in tow – the jugular is well and truly grasped. ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘For Tomorrow’, and a gigantic ‘Tender’ with the London Community Gospel Choir show the ever-shifting identity that has always kept blur fresh. While recent single ‘The Narcissist’ is yet to reach their iconic heights, it lives comfortably in that kind of company. As closer ‘The Universal’ echoes out, gigantic glitter balls casting Wembley in sparkling starlight, it’s hard to imagine any other band being able to pull a show like this off.
“You’re properly mad, you lot, for sticking with us for so long,” Damon exclaims as the masses start approaching the exits. “Why?” He might be asking the question, but from the look on his face throughout, he’s already answered it. One of the standout shows for one of our best-ever bands; they’ve still got it. Was there ever any doubt?
St. Charles Square
There’s No Other Way
Out of Time
Coffee & TV
Under the Westway
End of a Century
Parklife (with Phil Daniels)
To the End
This Is a Low
Girls & Boys
Tender (with London Community Gospel Choir)