By John Curley
During Blur’s terrific show at Madison Square Garden on Friday, October 23rd, Damon Albarn talked gleefully about Blur making their Garden debut 25 years after the band was founded. Given the band’s stellar performance and the audience’s enthusiastic response, it was worth the wait.
The evening kicked off with an excellent 35-minute, eight-song set by the up-and-coming Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. The raw sound of Barnett and her band brings to mind PJ Harvey at the start of her career. The band features Barnett on guitar and lead vocals, Bones Sloane on bass and backing vocals, and Dave Mudie on drums. Barnett is touring behind her debut album, which is titled Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Despite the bass sound being muddy, Barnett and her band came across very well. She is a talented lyricist as well as being a terrific guitarist. Barnett and her band received a nice reaction from the crowd. It is a shame, though, that many in the late-arriving crowd didn’t get to see Barnett’s set. They missed seeing a star in the making.
Blur’s stage set included a pair of giant ice cream cones at either end of the stage that were mockups of the one on the cover of the band’s latest album, The Magic Whip. The cones were lit up in neon for some parts of the show. And in a nice old-school touch, there were no video screens at the concert. The audience had to follow the action on the stage. Before the band hit the stage, music that sounded like that from an ice cream truck played.
They opened their set with a very heavy-duty performance of “Go Out” from the new album that featured stellar guitar work from Graham Coxon. Coxon’s fretwork was brilliant throughout the show. He is a criminally underrated musician.
In addition to Albarn on lead vocals and Coxon on guitar and vocals, Blur are comprised of drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James. On this tour, Blur are augmented by two keyboardists and three backing vocalists. In addition, a four-piece horn section was used on some of the songs, adding a great deal of punch to the tunes.
Blur made a wise move in not loading the start of the show with the new material. Rather, they sprinkled the new songs throughout the set. This decision paid dividends when the second song of the night, the Blur classic “There’s No Other Way,” brought the house down. The jaunty “Lonesome Street” from The Magic Whip followed and was given a spirited performance. Then came “Badhead,” which featured terrific work by the horn section.
The second big hand of the night was for the performance of “End of a Century.” The crowd sang along quite loudly to the extended version of “Coffee & TV.” And the anti-war song “Out of Time” featured a great lead vocal by Albarn.
Since Blur was in New York City, Albarn talked about Lou Reed and mentioned that Reed had performed with him at one of his shows with Gorillaz in New York City. And before the band played “Country Sad Ballad Man,” Albarn said that the song had a Lou Reed vibe to it.
Blur blew the roof off of the place with an incredibly raucous performance of “Beetlebum” that got a huge reaction from the crowd. The new song “Thought I was A Spaceman” has a trippy disco vibe and featured terrific guitar work by Coxon. “Trimm Trabb” sounded quite grungy and featured ferocious guitar from Coxon and rip-roaring drumming courtesy of Rowntree.
They brought the volume down a notch for a fantastic performance of the beautiful “Tender,” which had many in the audience singing along. Albarn added a jokey bit at the end that advised the crowd not to vote for Donald Trump.
Albarn addressed the rumors that Mike Myers was going to join the band as his Austin Powers character to provide vocals on “Parklife” by telling the crowd that it wasn’t going to happen. Since Fred Armisen had filled a similar guest role at Blur’s show earlier in the week at the Hollywood Bowl, Albarn said they tried and failed to land someone to perform with the band at the Garden. Instead, they picked several audience members to join the band onstage. Several of them danced as the band played “Parklife” and one audience member did an admirable job replicating the spoken-word part that the British actor Phil Daniels had done on the original recording. The crowd ate it up.
The audience members in the standing-room area on the floor in front of the stage were pogoing madly as the band played “Song 2” with what seemed like everyone in the arena singing along with great gusto to the “woo hoo” chorus.
“This Is A Low” was a nice choice to close out the main set. It sounded fantastic, and the crowd was really into it.
The four-song encore was very well received by the crowd. “Stereotypes” got a rocking performance anchored by Coxon’s tremendous fretwork. “Girls & Boys” had many in the crowd dancing and singing along. The singalong by the audience continued on “For Tomorrow” and reached its apex on the last song of the night, “The Universal.” A chorus thousands strong sang along at the top of their voices while holding their lit-up mobile phones aloft. That created a nice effect and was a fantastic way to bring to a close what had been a great night of music in Manhattan.
Blur’s one hour and 50-minute set was comprised of a 17-song main set and a four-song encore.
Many bands that reunite after years apart deliver disappointing results and fail to live up to their previous work. Blur are most definitely an exception to that. Their reunion has been sensational, producing one fantastic live show after another as well as the great new album. A documentary covering the years since Blur’s reunion, which is titled New World Towers and was directed by Sam Wrench, will premiere in December. The trailer for the film can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGc8d-WDvm4.
Courtney Barnett’s setlist was as follows:
Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party
An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)
Pedestrian at Best
Blur’s setlist was as follows:
There’s No Other Way
End of a Century
Coffee & TV
Out of Time
Country Sad Ballad Man
Thought I Was A Spaceman
Parklife (with audience member sharing lead vocals)
To The End
This Is A Low
Girls & Boys