I’m going out to the local, by myself. The occasion is a surreal one – after over a decade (15 years if you’re a Coxon fan, 12 otherwise), Blur are officially opening peace talks with America, via tonight’s (1st May) free lottery-ticketed, teeny-tiny show at the 550 capacity Music Hall of Williamsburg. It might be only halfway through the American working afternoon by the time doors open – but judging by the fervour of the labyrinthine line gathered for returns, and the eyewatering figures behind bandied about for them, there’s a massed faithful ready to dust off their polos to meet them.
Although not that you’d know it. Frontman Damon Albarn’s recently referred to the lukewarm reception that’s previously greeted the band Stateside as “a great question mark” – and it’s curious to see the cultural sphere they inhabit in practice. I’d probably have advised the bloke in the office who copped tickets to their recent intimate West London showcase to invest in Kevlar before spreading the news, but judging by the slightly bemused looks I’m faced with here, mainstream permeation is still yet to complete. But when the rest of the world can’t find a field big enough to fit you in, why worry?
The reason? LP no. 8 The Magic Whip, the new album that took the world by surprise at the end of last year, and surprised us all over again by how great it was. It might not be perfect, but it’s a pretty handy digest of the band’s accumulated resume to date for a new listener – one minute glowing with melancholic nostalgia, the next, shirt-off, tubthumping anthem. It’s the sole ammunition they bring with them tonight, playing the new record in full (bar “the ice cream song” that “they haven’t quite worked out how to play yet”) – if they’re coming back, it’ll be no nostalgia trip.
“Lonesome Street” is the kind of opener devotees would have been praying for in their absence – plucky, punchy and playful. Albarn starts ripping through water bottle after bottle at a furious pace, spraying them into the audience (and all over the cameras of tonight’s bill-footers Converse, poor loves) with his reliably puckish charm. Blur are a band that bring a festival headline worthy level of show regardless of their surroundings, and it’s truly electric to experience in this small a space with zero dilution. They attack these songs with an infectious intensity, and the proximity to the crowd means Albarn can pretty much single out everyone individually with his wild stare, goading them all into matching his charisma. Whether there’s one hundred or one hundred thousand shouting the words back at him, the sincerity with which he delivers his songs makes it feel like his whole world depends on them. Saying that, I’ve never seen them do “Crazy Beat”.
They’re rewarded with tonight’s proper welcome – the full minute of cheers and screams as the crowd absolutely erupt in response. It’s the first time they’ve played these songs to an audience since the record’s release, and the four giant grins betray some relief.
Whip’s full of mournful, mesmerised balladry, and their emotional cores are borne bare tonight – “My Terracotta Heart” and “Pyongyang” in particular shining with their saddened glow. As the band slowly drown out Albarn’s pained calls at the end of “Thought I Was a Spaceman”, he’s left staring out into the crowd, wide-eyed and wordless. It’s a beautiful moment.
However, man of the match goes to Graham Coxon. It’s little surprise that the catalyst for moulding the album’s initial meandering jam sessions into such a taut, assured comeback is splattered into every nook of their live set – whether it’s as weeping beauty or powerchord piledriver, his guitar-work is loud, inventive and totally engrossing. Anyone who’s ever levelled the criticism that Blur wasn’t a satisfactory vehicle to house Albarn’s developing songwriting can’t have seen this guy let rip. From the dark slither of “Go Out” to the whirling crescendo of “Spaceman”, he’s as much as part of what makes The Magic Whip crack as his counterpart is.
And doesn’t Albarn know it. He’s talked openly about the underlying narrative of this record being the reconciliation between the two of them, and onstage, it’s a visually apparently make-up, not just a sonic one. Coxon is the constant recipient of bearhugs, bows, gestures and grins from the band’s frontman, who looks not only pleased as punch to be standing three feet from him playing new music again, but who’s frequently happy to stand back and watch him with the rest of us.
That the bulk of the record was crafted in a week of downtime is testament to the sheer, inimitable magic that occurs when these four step into a room together. It’s heartwarming to see the four treating past misunderstanding as bygones, and celebrate the new purple patch they find themselves in.
But as natural resources go, hit singles and lost b-sides are in equally endangered supply in their live circuit here – so why not indulge a little? With the trio of oldies saved for the encore – “Beetlebum”, “Trouble In The Message Centre” and the one hit that did take off on this side of the Atlantic, “Song 2” – the crowd transforms from transfixed to berserk. They might have proved themselves capable of reincarnation, but this punk-rock reception shows there’s still life in the old guns yet too.