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What a difference a decade makes.
A decade-plus, really. When last I saw Blur it was the summer of 2003, in what was to be one of their very last American outings of the Aughts. This was at D.C.’s 9:30 Club, where, had we known what we were looking for, the group of friends I’d gone with would’ve sensed warning signs all about. It’d been a fine show, to be sure — but then what was with frontman Damon Albarn folding his arms and offhandedly smoking all throughout the ballads (“To the End,” “The Universal,” etc.)? And how about bassist Alex James, who for the duration affected a rock-star power-stance, one leg up on the monitors as he gazed imperiously down upon the crowd? James at one point even teased the line to “Country House,” which Blur didn’t play. What they did play included identical back-to-back takes on “We’ve Got a File on You,” which was all well and good: They were there, after all, to pimp the Graham Coxon–less Think Tank, and besides, that particular track’s only one minute long, and kicks ass. But Damon’s sneering “D’you want that again?” might as well have been the line from that Simpsons episode where Bart fantasizes about the rock-star lifestyle: I’d like to play me latest chart-topper; it’s called “Me Fans Are Stupid Pigs.”
Of course, a good part of Albarn’s charm lies in what one colleague of mine has called his being a “little prince” (and in what one of the friends from that D.C. show has termed his being a “clever, clever boy”). So it can be hard to tell when Damon’s being a friendly prick, as opposed to just a bastard. And indeed, that line was — ahem — blurred again on Friday night, at the hastily announced and -arranged show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. For starters, there was Albarn’s declaration, of just three weeks prior, that “I’m up for doing a bit of touring, but there’s a great question mark when it comes to America with Blur for me.” And then, when Blur took the stage, there was Albarn’s flogging everyone with streams of water out of a plastic bottle. Was this to be prickly-but-fun Damon, or Damon-being-an-actual-prick Damon?
The former, as it turns out. And everyone else was in fine spirits, too. Seems the band had taken up James’s attitude (“We couldn’t be more excited,” he’d told Rolling Stone. “It’s a miracle, really. I think we owe the fans something”). Indeed, far from rawk-asshole posturing, James walked onstage flashing a big ol’ grin; Coxon, in his first New York appearance with Blur since 2000 (!), followed suit, though perhaps more sheepishly. It would’ve been hard not to see Albarn’s water-spritzing as a touching (for him), loving gesture.
Save for a short encore, the set was composed wholly of songs off Blur’s new album, The Magic Whip. The work is, true to Britpop form, a bit of a disjointed affair, with Gorillaz-ready vibes and The Good, the Bad & the Queen–appropriate fare butting up against arrangements harking right on back to Parklife, though the live setting, as ever, offered a forum in which the higher-tempo numbers could shine brightest. Jaunty leadoff track “Lonesome Street” made for a fitting opener, Damon confessing to his particularly English variety of self-doubt (“What do you got?/Mass-produced in somewhere hot/You’ll have to go on the Underground/To get things done here”) as the rest of the crew bopped and bounced merrily. Nor did the slower cuts sap any of the gig’s momentum, though they did occasion a whole lot of phones and Instagramming and then other people bitching vocally about all the phones and Instagramming. Of The Magic Whip‘s gentler jams, “New World Towers” carried over just as prettily as it appears in album form, and “My Terracotta Heart” represented a slow-it-down-and-warm-it-up high point. (Doesn’t that song scratch precisely the same itch as Radiohead’s “Nude”? And — seriously — doesn’t it do it better, in all its pseudo-jazz emo desperation?) Oh, and how about the 13-y semipsychedelia of “Thought I Was a Spaceman,” with Coxon taking that extended coda, howling into the vocoder, whammying the night into pure rapture?
So the new stuff went over well, it’d be fair to say. And it must’ve been encouraging to the band that people knew it so well already; at one point someone or other in the audience yelled at the lads as to why they’d skipped “Ice Cream Man,” prompting an actual (gasp!) chuckle from Albarn. Yes, Damon, there are those of us statesiders who are just as fanatical as anyone in Ingerland. Just because you’re not playing Wembley….
Anyway, Blur would go on, after the kind of faux-encore-break that’s become so fashionable these days, to chuck out some red meat, in the form of “Beetlebum,” “Trouble in the Message Centre” (a deep cut?!), and “Song 2.” And in case you’re wondering, sure, yeah, that last one might’ve felt obvious, or obligatory for American audiences — who, after all, and to Albarn’s apparent chagrin, made it Blur’s only true hit this side of the Atlantic — were it not for the hard-charging glee with which it was presented. Not even a faux pas on the stompbox could mar the proceedings. Welcome back, Graham, and Blur: Now, seriously, don’t be pricks and leave us hanging so long again.
ASIDE ONE: Sadly lost in all this Blurmania will be opening act and Brooklyn locals Honduras, whose frontman, Pat Philips, strikes in some sweet zone between Bradford Cox and the Thermals’ Hutch Harris. (That’s a compliment.) Plus, Honduras have the most batshit sense of dynamics since maybe the Mars Volta.
ASIDE TWO: I was killing time and avoiding the line (as music journos are wont to do) before the show at Sweetwater, which by the way makes a hell of a whiskey-ginger and features an Irishman-bartender by the name of Paul who looks and sounds more than a little like Michael Fassbender (ladies!), when in walked Blur’s backup-vocal team. How did Paul and I know it was them? The bar had just put on Albarn’s solo album, Everyday Robots, in honor and as preview of the concert around the block, which at least one of the other staff members was going to. “Mr. Tembo” was playing just as the group entered. They proceeded to sing along with the on-record backup in utterly fucking perfect four-part. I was the only customer at the time, otherwise. I think only Paul and I saw it. Absolute magic.
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