The setting for Blur's first London gig with Graham Coxon since the start of this decade is, in all fairness, quite unspectacular. The 170 fans - who this morning reached Brixton Academy in time to receive an invitation to the gig of a lifetime - have now duly relocated themselves to Brick Lane's Rough Trade East to gaze upon a dartboard and some barbed wire behind an unassuming stage.
Not that it matters. Having managed to pull off a low-key surprise gig in Colchester some nights earlier amidst the media frenzy that surrounds the comeback of the year, Blur's greatest challenge tonight is merely to show up. But in more than one mind does incredulous thoughts of it all being too good to be true to creep in. That is, until someone shouts ''Dave!'' and 170 hearts stop for a split second as Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree come onstage and dive straight into the first song of their first album. And as all thoughts are pushed into oblivion with a ''See her face / everyday'', even the wondering of why the hell someone shouted the drummer's name vanishes.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Blur 2009.
‘She's So High’ gives way to ‘Girls & Boys’, and as drummer Dave gets told off by a smiling Albarn for missing the cue and James falls into a plant on the side of the stage, one gets the impression that things have never been better within the band, and that in the space of two songs, this venue will be completely derived of air. An impromptu ‘Advert’ (from 1992's ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’) confirms the latter feeling.
A brilliant, low-key middle section proves what the initial reports from the night before’s comeback implied: that Blur 2009 is still very focused on the more melodic fragments of their extensive back catalogue which – in terms of composition – always had them miles ahead of tabloid rivals Oasis. ‘Tender’ sounds gigantic, even in a small record shop, and Coxon's contribution to ‘Out of Time’ – a song Blur recorded after his exit from the band in 2002 – is a true testament to the guitarist’s ability to fuse his own fondness for punk aesthetics with Albarn's melodic approach.
For Blur, after all, is a band with schizophrenic tendencies. Albarn's eyes roll back into his head as he spits the lyrics of ‘Popscene’ into the face of a (no doubt ecstatic) crowd member, before the oh-so-familiar drum intro slides into East London's loudest “whoo-hoo”. And when a beautiful ‘This Is A Low’ – possibly Blur's finest hour – resigns to overwhelming applause, they are gone. The crowd, not surprisingly, wants more.
But today, the lack of a single tune from ‘The Great Escape’ or any of the numerous hits not included in the set fades deep into the background when one realises they just saw Coxon and Albarn having the time of their lives, that Blur really are back, and that, my god, how good it is to have them here again.
Words: Brand Barstein
Blur - Live at Rough Trade East