It was a bit of surprise earlier this year when Blur announced the release of their first new album as a foursome in 16 years. And it was even more of a surprise last month when they announced they would be playing a handful of warm-up gigs for the summer, and one of them would be in my home town of Llandudno!
I mean, that just doesn’t happen… My favourite band ever, back together, releasing new material and playing live on my doorstep? It seems fantasy can become reality.
Much has been made of the fact Blur’s date at Llandudno’s Venue Cymru was their first gig in Wales for 18 years (since December 1997, to be precise). But that was in Cardiff; this was their first gig in North Wales ever. But, as frontman Damon Albarn told the crowd, the oversight was never intentional.
I suppose that many in the audience were there for the big-hitters, those jaunty, iconic tunes from the heyday of Britpop, but this time around the band had new stuff to play, and hearing it live for the first time was something special. They played seven of their new tracks, opening with the rousing Go Out, that repetitive chant of a chorus warming the crowd up for more singalong camaraderie later on.
One of the stand-out tracks on The Magic Whip is Lonesome Street, a melancholic grower which is probably the best thing they’ve done since their reunion, while they also slammed out heavy mosh-pleasers such as I Broadcast and Ong Ong.
But it’s the more introspective, melodious tracks off The Magic Whip which impress most, morphing from unfamiliarity into earworms without any prior notice. The slowly escalating Thought I Was a Spaceman puts one in mind of Berlin-era Bowie, while Albarn’s ode to his “brother” Graham Coxon, My Terracotta Heart, is heartbreakingly gentle. Perhaps too gentle for an arena full of 2,500 people baying for Parklife. I expect it works better acoustically.
The only real disappointment in the new material is Ghost Ship, a cloying calypso which, although it works better live than in the studio, brought the buoyant mood in the venue down somewhat. Ghost Ship is a good time to nip to the loo.
But it’s the hefty back catalogue which really gets the crowd going. Whether they are entertaining tens of thousands at massive, open-air festivals, or playing to just a few hundred in a tiny venue on a city backstreet, Blur know how to work the crowd up into a frenzy. The first half of the gig was laced with 90s classics like There’s No Other Way, Badhead and Coffee & TV, but the gig reached its apex when the boys began plundering their later work. That juddering guitar intro to Beetlebum raises the roof, followed by the hypnotic power of Tender, which turns the auditorium into a kind of church, the crowd chanting along to the simple but heartfelt lyrics of love and hope. Albarn was the preacher, and we were his congregation.
It was lovely that they played one of my all-time favourite Blur tracks, the non-single He Thought of Cars from The Great Escape, a beautiful, melancholic grower, and then there was the surprising live power of Trimm Trabb from 13 – again, not a single, but such a rousing spectacle live.
And as is traditional, the gig drew to a crowd-pleasing end with the expected big-hitters – Song 2 (Albarn actually forgetting the words at one point!), To the End, Girls and Boys, For Tomorrow and, to finish, The Universal. It’s a shame that song’s been scarred by the British Gas commercials, but it’s still an arm-wavingly fine way to end what was a fantastic gig.
Perhaps sometimes the crowd wasn’t as responsive as the band would’ve liked, or are used to, but this was a modestly sized venue on the North Wales coast. This wasn’t Manchester or Glasgow or even Wolverhampton. It was something special because, for one night only, the best band in Britain came to the seaside.