Two business bros are standing behind me in line at the bar debating whether to order doubles or triples of Jameson on the rocks. It’s barely 6PM, but it is Friday, dammit, and Blur are playing their first New York show since these dudes got their learner’s permits. A lot’s changed for the Britpop icons over the last 15 years: guitarist Graham Coxon left Blur, Coxon rejoined, Coxon out again, Blur over, Blur back, Blur back for real. They’ve played some of the biggest stages in the world on their comeback tour — London’s Hyde Park to kick things off in 2009, followed by Glastonbury that same year and Coachella in 2013 — but Damon Albarn, Alex James, Dave Rowntree, and Coxon are working a smaller crowd today: about 550 diehards, including the aforementioned bros, who settle on doubles. I’ll be thankful for that later.
To celebrate the release of The Magic Whip, their first new (and mostly excellent) album in 12 years, Blur took the stage at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday for what had to be Converse Rubber Tracks’ most impressive booking to date. (Thank Jon Cohen, Fader co-founder and “the guy who picked Blur up from the airport in 1990 and encouraged us to drink too much,” says Albarn from the stage, for that; his Cornerstone branding agency works closely with Converse Rubber Tracks.) Based on Albarn’s stage presence, however, you’d have thought Blur were headlining yet another festival.
The first thing Albarn does is establish the power dynamic in a way that might work well for the sweaty masses at a festival, but seems downright dickish in a small club: he tosses bottle after bottle of water on the crowd. (Doesn’t he know how many Blur fans wear leather jackets?) By then, Damon has that rabid frontman look in his eyes; it’s as if he hasn’t eaten in roughly a week and every person standing before him is dressed in a hot dog costume. When he sings the line, “She does it with herself,” in Magic Whip lead single “Go Out,” he takes great pleasure in screaming this subtle smut into a sea of faces he can see. He’s working a much bigger room than he’s in, and the result is an absolute thrill to watch and hear. Blur should do a club tour just to show everyone how much fun they’ve having now. Maybe that will stop people from wondering whether Graham and Damon are secretly at each other’s throats.
By the looks of the hour-long show, which opened with a performance from Brooklyn punks Honduras, Britpop’s Glimmer Twins are getting along quite well these days, thank you very much. When the band plays “My Terracotta Heart” — a meta, midtempo new song that sounds as if it’s addressed directly to Graham from Damon — the two sort of snuggle up near each other in Coxon’s corner of the stage. When looser Magic Whip songs like “Ghost Ship” come up, Albarn’s energy turns flirty and his dance moves become completely goofy. Alex James grins at this, and you can tell Graham is amused too. I’m convinced the entire band plays better when Damon’s in a good mood. That’s how infectious he is.
Those little interactions must get lost in the jumble of a Blur festival set, even if Albarn has enough frontman energy to power an arena with his mischief and the band really fleshes out its new songs live into these huge epics. It’s a shame, really, that so few people will ever see Blur perform in this kind of environment — and mosh to “Song 2” — ten feet in front of Albarn, who appears ready to jump in the pit at any moment.
After playing the near entirety of The Magic Whip (“Ice Cream Man” wasn’t performance-ready yet), Blur returns for a three-song encore consisting of old favorites “Beetlebum,” “Trouble in the Message Centre,” and “Song 2.” Immediately it feels like a different show in a lower-rent club, except that all the people moshing clearly have not done this very many times before (someone’s gotta teach these boys the stance). I see the two business bros from earlier pummeling towards the front, button-shirt cuffs now rolled up, fists flying, “woo hoos” issuing forth from their mouths. Blur is not a punk band, but with the kind of energy they exerted on Friday, its fans would probably tell you otherwise.