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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Review: Blur closes out F1 weekend with spirited set

Since reforming six years ago, Blur have grown used to inducing states of ecstatic euphoria. It wasn't hard to feel like Abu Dhabi was letting the Britpop icons down - or should that be the other way around?
Blur performs on the last night of the Yas F1 entertainment evenings at the Du Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National
Blur performs on the last night of the Yas F1 entertainment evenings at the Du Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National

Since reforming six years ago, Blur have grown used to inducing states of ecstatic euphoria – prompting teary mass singalongs, rave reviews and selling out gigs at London’s Hyde Park four times over, as they continue their “one last time” charade.

It was tempting to feel as though Abu Dhabi was letting the Britpop icons down. Or should that be the other way around?

“That’s pathetic,” scowled Damon Albarn after waving the mic at the crowd during Girls & Boys.

The frontman swaggered the stage imploringly, like a conductor faced with the worst orchestra in the world, his expression switching from “oh-I-just-don’t-believe-it” bemusement to fatherly disappointment to smug spite.

One thing Blur weren’t, was afraid. They began in refreshingly relevant fashion, showcasing two tracks from this year’s album The Magic Whip – hypnotic slow-burner Go Out and bouncing, biting Lonesome Street – with just first hit, 1991’s There’s No Other Way, sandwiched fittingly in between.

“Right, we’re going to play lots of songs you know now,” deadpanned Albarn, kicking into Badhead, one of five tracks drawn from the band’s 1994 classic LP, Parklife.

Next came that great nihilist’s anthem Coffee & TV, with guitarist Graham Coxon carving swathes of sound both brutal and beautiful.

“I think you can do considerably better than that,” said Albarn as attempts to get a crowd singalong going fell apart.

After a flat, unfocused Beetlebum, the moody Trimm Trabb served to exorcise the band’s frustrations, with Albarn yelping like a wounded dog and splashing drummer Dave Rowntree with bottles of water at the sudden sonic freakout.

Tender served as an almost Zen-like rebuke, a beautiful, rousing singalong of childlike simplicity and earthy spirituality.

“We’ve rinsed this one,” admitted Albarn, before unleashing Parklife, that great ironic, laddish anthem, to a sea of pogoing bodies.

It almost felt like a reward for good behaviour when the band followed up with Country House, reportedly the first time they’ve played their sole UK number one this year.

Coxon clearly wasn’t a fan of the decision, seemingly intent on derailing the bouncy, horn-led caricature by extracting screeching walls of sound from his all-but muted guitar. (“All right there, Graham?” quipped Albarn).

More impressive than the fact that the four members of Blur are still talking, is the amount of noise they can make.

While backed at times by as many as 10 musicians (keyboards, percussion/electronics, plus brass and backing-vocal ranks numbering four-apiece), these additions are fleeting and subtle. Everything you need to hear comes from these four guys, a testament to Coxon’s and James’s inventive fretboard fingerwork.

The set wrapped with the subdued duo of Parklife anthems To the End and This is a Low, with Damon now in full-on teen-toddler tantrum mode – jumping, waving, scowling – at the muted response to these introspective fan favourites.

But they came back for an encore anyway, with Girls & Boys, and then a slightly lacklustre, slowed down, “la la” singalong For Tomorrow.

The brass were back at the fore for the climatic The Universal – yes, it really, really, really, could happen – before a familiar drum beat kicked in...

“Do you want it?” Albarn demanded to know, twice, a danger in his eyes that suggested if the audience didn’t start “woo-hoo”-ing at once, we’d all be sent home without hearing Song 2.

“All right, you’re having it,” he decided, and that familiar five-chord, brain-dead, Teen Spirit rip-off was unleashed like a bull running from a ring.

In truth, there was something almost charming in Albarn’s arrogance – whether it is a posture or for real – a rock star, behaving like a rock star. Maybe he’s giving us what we want, really.

As the final yelps of ragged feedback rang out from his guitar, Coxon – the most unlikely of rock stars – neatly knelt down, picked up his race-day pass from the floor, returned the glasses he lost an hour earlier to his face, and bowed like a naughty choirboy.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

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