«You should cut down on your pork-life, mate – get some exercise.» Sensible advice, so we went down to experience the parklife at Tøyenparken at this year’s Øyafestivalen, to see whether Blur can get up when they want. Plenty of other people – you might say «so many people» – of varying ages had the same idea – the bowl around the stage was full to the back fence, with more people squeezing in as the first song played, «The Ballad» from «The Ballad of Darren», their new record, which was finished in only May this year. Damon Albarn, wearing a jacket, was seated at the piano for this earnest, gentle piece, full of melancholy. In some ways, this moment typified the set – we’ll come to that later. «St Charles Square» was next, and marvellous guitar chaos ensued. For anyone who is a fan of Graham Coxon as a guitarist, this was to be a good set, full of excellent and varied performances, and plenty of close-ups of his fingerwork on the big screens. In fact, it serves well to say it now. Blur can play, still. This was a performance at a very high standard, everyone perfectly in time, in the groove. There was barely a note out of place in the whole performance. Dave Rowntree was energetic and accurate and kept the set moving along very nicely. A decade or more of making cheese (this has to be mentioned) has had little impact on Alex James’s bass playing, whatever else it has done for him.
James too stood there in a jacket (but with shorts), on the other side from Coxon, also wearing a jacket. So, it is grown-up music they’re playing now, and the subject and style of their latest output speaks to that. We would hear five songs from the new record, and they were largely well received by a crowd which was, to be fair, very much with them from the start, from the first massive cheer as the band became visible on the edge of the stage. «St Charles Square» had probably the best impact of the new pieces, full of edgy energy while Albarn stormed up and down the stage, hurling the words into the audience. «Goodbye Albert» had interesting textures and was a foil to the high energy of «Trimm Trabb» and «Villa Rosie» which followed, one flowing into the other via Coxon’s dissonant guitar. «Coffee and TV» which followed those was also well received even by a crowd who seemed to know the singles more than the album tracks.
Albarn commented to the audience “You’ve been mellow and we’ve been mellow up to this point, which is nice, but I’m taking my jacket off now”. Then came «Country House» and «Parklife», which had the crowd in a frenzy, but that excitement was shortly undercut by «To the End» and the gentle, yearning «Barbaric». Again, two good performances of those tracks. «To the End» was genuinely emotional, with Albarn clenching his fists in triumph, grinning at the audience after singing «looks like we made it to the end», and reaching out to them as he sang «when you and I / collapsed in love» with dozens of people reaching back towards him. But because the order of the songs didn’t take us on any kind of emotional journey, the intensity that Albarn had conjured in those moments evaporated. Here’s the rub for the undersigned- just as «The Ballad» was a strange choice of opening number, overall – the ordering of the pieces didn’t seem to work. You couldn’t fault the individual performances by and large, or the choices of song across the show – the set was a good mix of outright hits and high-quality, better-known album tracks, but the order of them was hard to comprehend. The atmosphere of the set never held and didn’t flow either.
«Girls and Boys» came after «Barbaric» – another change in tone and tempo, with Albarn donning a tracksuit top to take us back in time, I suppose. There was a lot of audience participation, with them singing the chorus and doing the «na na na na-na na»s as well. Certainly, Albarn was working them well and keeping the rapport up, but for the undersigned, it wasn’t working. Of all the pieces on the set list, this one stood out as being too much of a «hit» – it lacks the musical and lyrical depth of the rest of the set list and as a result, it sounded rather weak and even a bit tired. The much anticipated «Song 2» was another piece that didn’t quite work, perhaps because it just «arrived» in the set. The only build up was Dave Rowntree, who got centre stage for a few moments, his face put up on the big screens as he tapped out that much-loved drum pattern. I’d also take issue with some of the arrangements – for example, «Parklife» was too fast, leaving Albarn prattling more than delivering Phil Daniels’s lines.
«This is a Low» brought us to the closing section of the concert, though there was no formal encore. In places, Albarn’s voice is a little thinner at the top end, which is unsurprising, so the higher lines needed some adjustment. But it was fine. Coxon’s solo was excellent, faithful to all the lyricism and aching tension of the original with a few added flourishes, while his playing on the verses had excellent articulation, delicate and lilting. This, along with the conjoined «Trimm Trabb» and «Villa Rosie» were, I reckon, the highlights. Finally, we had «Tender», which the undersigned has never understood, and the single off the new album «The Narcissist» which had some clear fans in the front twenty rows or so, and Albarn smiled down at those who were singing along. Its beguiling guitar textures work well live. But, again, a strange choice for the penultimate track. «The Universal» was last, as it has been in all their recent shows. It’s an unashamed and understandable fan favourite. There was a lot of clapping and singing along, a full chorus from everyone who had stayed after «Song 2». Albarn went back to the piano for the climax, filling out the sound with ringing chords. As the band came together on stage at the end to take the applause, raucous rather than generous, you could see they are enjoying being Blur again and we must say they are doing it rather well. (4/6)
Text: Alex Maines
Photography: Anne-Marie Forker