Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blur, live at Hyde Park, July 3, 2009

I always struggled to define my relationship with Blur. I searched for definitions, and they were the band I liked the most without ever really loving. They effortlessly churned out one amazing song after another, they were versatile, they had longevity, and they were great live (for a long time, their 1996 Toronto gig at the then-Warehouse was one of my top five favourite concerts ever). They were a great great band, but there was one problem -- they didn't truly matter to me. Ever loved somebody without being IN love? Yeah.

I wasn't clamouring for a Blur reunion. I didn't miss them when they were gone, and besides, "Think Tank" was unforgivable tripe which at that time served to profoundly justify all of my nagging suspicions about not committing myself to this band. They'd screwed up, they simply weren't worth it after all. So I couldn't get excited about the reunion, even though I privately knew that the concerts would surely turn out to be great.

Almost everything in this set feels fresh because I haven't heard most of these songs in years. This is what helps make "She's So High" such a welcome opener. Even though it's far from the best moment on "Leisure" (that would be "Sing"), it's naivete and simplicity make for a memorable comeback singalong tune, and of course the best is yet to come.

This set is heavy on "Parklife" tunes (eight of them), which is understandable for a held in a huge outdoor venue in July (and nearly 15 years to the day after their famous "Parklife"-era Glastonbury performance that launched their career to another level). If it was up to me, I would have stacked up those songs in the middle of the set, because the mid-set "Tender"/"Country House" section feels a lot more like the triumphant end to the gig than the somewhat obvious and perfunctory "Parklife"/"End of a Century"/"To the End"/"This Is a Low" four-song run that they actually chose, although I can understand "This Is A Low" as the main set-closer. "Tender" is arguably the highlight of the gig, and not just because is it one of the few truly sexy moments of the concert (and in Blur's oeuvre in general). This extended, nine-minute version gets a spectacular reaction from an emotional crowd that sings along with every word, which surely sends a bit of an f-you to the people who dismissed this song in 1999, claiming that it was unnecessarily long, or indulgent, or nothing more than sludgy, rewarmed Spiritualized. It simply has to be Blur's most underrated single, what else could it possibly be (maybe "End of a Century"? I think a lot of people would say "Coffee and TV" but they couldn't be more wrong (it's one of their plainest songs, any one of a million indie-rock bands could have written it). And who would have thought that "Country House" could sound so glorious in 2009? Wasn't it the throwaway Blur-by-numbers track that didn't really need to exist after the band succeeded in their goal to beat out Oasis' "Roll With It" for the #1 spot on the British singles charts?

In the long run, it was probably inevitable that Blur's critical reputation would be rehabilitated. Americans just needed time to forget about all of the quirky things they hate about British music scenes and scenesters (e.g. the moptop hairdos circa "Leisure", goofy stuff like the "Country House" video). Once those memories faded, people were left with nothing but the music to judge them by, at which point it becomes clearer that Blur rocked harder (and weirder) than most critics gave them credit for. Weird stuff doesn't always work in a festival-like setting, so this set leans toward rockier renditions, no doubt thanks to Graham Coxon's well-known distaste for some of Blur's poppier side. "Chemical World" and "Beetlebum" deserve special mention for being particularly fierce. And of course, "Advert".

After all the bounce-along hits, Blur close the second encore (and the show) with "The Universal". It's their most epic, dramatic, and emotionally wrenching single, and the fact that they return to it for their final bow is one of those things that make me almost love them all over again.

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