The last two Saturdays have been concert days. On 13 June it was British Sea Power at the Roundhouse and yesterday, 20 June, Blur headlined in Hyde Park.
Both bands have a distinctly British – or English – feel. They use the tools and sounds of rock’n’roll, they certainly rock at times; but not in a rock’n’roll way. Their musical bloodline feels like Beatles, Kinks, Bowie, Pink Floyd, and a bit of old English folk, rather than say, Elvis, the Stones, blues, metal, Zeppelin. A quirkiness, a certain detachment, but a pride in this country, their England. They are pretty different bands, but you just know when you hear them that they couldn’t possibly be American.
I saw British Sea Power in April 2013 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, when they had just released their new album, “Machineries of Joy”. (I blogged about it at the time). I wasn’t that familiar with the music, but really enjoyed it and scooped up most of their albums afterwards. This time the band were playing the whole of their first album, “The Decline Of British Sea Power”. And very good it was too. It shows that BSP can write a good melodic indie song that gets everyone singing along to the chorus, but also that they insist in throwing in a ten minute guitar wig-out just to make sure that people realise they aren’t about to become a pop band. This may explain why they haven’t become massive, although they are still pretty popular – the sort of band that attracts a loyal core of fans.
After “The Decline of British Sea Power”, the band played for another hour, with mostly songs, where they were recognisable, from 2008’s “Do You Like Rock Music?”. And only BSP could finish the set with an instrumental about a large seagull, “The Great Skua”, and get an ecstatic reaction from the audience! We had the usual intervention from a large bear, of course; there was a man in a pith helmet running around banging a drum; and as ever, there was a plentiful supply of foliage on stage.
A word for the support band, Bo Ningen, a Japanese quartet with impossibly long hair, who make a noise which I can only describe as thrash metal dirge. I’m not sure I could cope with much more than the half hour we were treated to, but boy, were they energetic! A bizarre form of punk, almost. Credit to them for the show they put on.
Blur’s commercial peak was in the 1990s, when they were one of the key Britpop bands. For a while, the anti-Oasis. But after their triumphs with the brilliant “Parklife” and the big-selling “The Great Escape” (which was just a bit too shiny and contrived) they re-emerged with a grungier sound for “Blur” and then moved increasingly away from the pop mainstream, experimenting more and more with sounds from all over the world. They broke up in 2003, with singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon – the two main creative forces – unable to work with each other. Damon Albarn explored all sorts of other music and art forms, and had a major success, of course, with cartoon rappers, Gorillaz. The band reformed towards the end of the noughties and from time to time have performed some big one-off shows, including at Hyde Park before, and Glastonbury, to general acclaim.
So this show was just the latest of those big events. They have also released a new album recently, called “The Magic Whip”. I bought it without expecting too much from it. But after a couple of plays I started to think, this is really good! The songs are strong; the sounds keep on reminding me somehow of late 70s/ early 80s Bowie: some of the stuff on “Scary Monsters” and “Let’s Dance”. There’s even a song – “Ghost Ship” – which reminds me of Steely Dan!
So with a good new album and a great back catalogue, I was really looking forward to seeing Blur. There was a cast of supporting bands, including The Horrors and Metronomy, but the weather was pretty poor, and my friend Tony and I decided just to focus on the main event. We saw a bit of Roots Manuva on the second stage, playing his excellent London rap-reggae; but it was all about Blur, really.
And they were brilliant! Exceeded expectations. From the moment they kicked off with “Go Out” from the new album – one of those Bowie-esque beats – they were awesome. Second song was their early guitar classic, “There’s No Other Way”, one of my absolute favourites. Fourth in, “Badhead”, another. And so it went on, with so many old favourites, interspersed with the new ones, which already sound like Blur classics. Highlights included a heartfelt singalong to “Tender”, with the stage screen showing the refrain love’s the greatest thing in countless language. A lovely, not corny, touch. “Beetlebum” was all Beatles “White Album” distortion, as ever. “Thought I Was A Spaceman”, from “The Magic Whip”, was spacey and the lighting entrancing. The crowd went ape to “Song 2”; and “Parklife”, with Phil Daniels on stage to deliver those cockney lines, had a huge, engaging energy. And of course “Girls and Boys” provided a great finale, with “For Tomorrow” and “The Universal”.
A superb, uplifting couple of hours. So glad I went.
A reminder of what a great band Blur were, and confirmation that they still are.
(These four photos are all cropped shots of the pictures on the big screens nearest us. At top, Damon Albarn in his best skinhead bomber jacket and bassist Alex James with trademark fag hanging out of his mouth. At the bottom, Dave Rowntree on drums and Graham Coxon on guitar).