Blur stage historic return to Glastonbury
Damon collapses in tears onstage: full gig report
Steve Jenner - 28 June 2009
The most anticipated set on the Pyramid Stage not only marked Blur's first return to the festival since the last time they headlined this stage back in 1998, but - more importantly - the first time they had appeared on a large stage together in almost ten years.
The pressure was clear from the terrified faces on Graham Coxon and Alex James as they emerged to an ocean of flag-waving fans that appeared to stretch as far as the horizon in every direction.
The only one who appeared remotely comfortable with the situation was Damon Albarn, who strode the length of the stage with a cheshire cat grin and defiant fist held aloft, asserting triumph before the first note was played.
Graham arrived sporting his old 'Cheryl' t-shirt (the one he wore on their classic live video from the Alexandra Palace back in their heyday), scratching his hair awkwardly and, along with Albarn's black Fred Perry and lean features, the band did not appear to have aged since their long sabatical began. The only signs that time had passed were Albarn's blinging gold front tooth and large sweat patches under Alex James' arms (cheese farming having eroded his former elegance).
After opening with a cautious 'She's So High' (the band unusually rigid while trying to regain their footing on the stage), Albarn exclaimed: "There's a lot of people here!". 'Girls And Boys' then loosened things up and got the crowd on their feet like it was 1994, with Damon prowling stage with a mod sneer we hadn't seen since at least 1995.
'Tracy Jacks' followed, and Albarn announced: "It seems like there's a really positive atmosphere here. Let's keep it positive." before the band surged into 'There's No Other Way', to the crowd's delight, and 'Jubilee'.
"I love these balloons that keep going up!", remarked Albarn, referring to the floating lanterns cascading up to the heavens, "They are beautiful and Glastonbury is very, very beautiful so please take your rubbish with you. Only joking!"
'Bad Head' was then dedicated to all the hangovers you might or might not have had. An intense 'Beetlebum' generated the biggest singalong so far.
In stark contrast to the raw chaos that defined the band's live shows of old, notably their 1998 Glastonbury appearance (which saw Albarn and Coxon airborne for the most part, bouncing off every surface of the stage and eachother) this was a stoical performance. They appeared to be indulging more in the sound they were making than the physical performance, much like the polished spectacle you'd expect from a more sophisticated live band like Radiohead. Blur have either grown up as musicians in their absence, or they've grown too old to abuse themselves to the extent they used to. Most likely they were playing it fairly safe for the global TV audience and taking tentative first steps back on the main stage.
"Please say hello to the moon", requested Albarn before showing off his more recent acoustic guitar skills and plucking out the intro to 'Out of Time'. One of the more poignant moments in the set occured when the singer nuzzled up to Coxon mid-song who returned the gesture touchingly with a kiss on his cheek, publicly affirming the pair's rediscovered love for oneanother.
The first flash of the old live band came during 'Trimm Trabb' with Graham contorting on his back, losing himself in a whirl of guitar histrionics.
"I'm enjoying this!", applauded his singer, before 'Coffee And TV' incited the loudest cheer so far and marked the point at which Blur were finally, truly back in their stride.
'Tender' proved one of the most memorable moments of the festival, fading out beautifully into an a cappela false ending, powered mostly by the crowd, before the song powered back in. Damon called to stop Graham launching into the next song, to allow the crowd to keep singing "Oh my baby" in a moving scene reminiscent of Radiohead's famous delivery of 'Karma Police' on the same stage in 2003.
A frenetic, yet tight 'Country house' followed before 'Oily Water' once again evoked the old Blur with a dishevelled ending that segued straight into 'Chemical World' while damon was still lying flat on his back on a blanket of feedback.
"I know it's Sunday night but I hope you've got some energy left", warned the singer, "When I start running you start running too. The people up there just run around your tents!".
'Sunday sunday' followed before a familiar and new cockney voice belonging to Phil Daniels bellowed "Oi 'ello Glastonbury! Do you want a bit of Parklife?"
Things calmed down a bit with a gentle 'End of a century' and sublime 'To The End'. Perhaps it was the magic of the moment or simply too much nostalgia concentrated in one song that defined a lost moment in time when Albarn was deeply in love with Justine Frischmann and Blur were Britain's favourite band.
Overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, Damon collapsed in a sobbing heap at the song's climax and sat on the drum riser with his head in his hands for a minute, while his stunned bandmates looked on unsure whether to comfort him, let him work through it or focus on keeping it together themselves. You could hear a pin drop in the crowd with grown men, including this writer, choked up by the moment.
'This Is A Low', Albarn's most naked anthem, came next with the frontman singing his heart out as the tears continued to flood down his face.
He then took a few moments to pull himself back together, leaving the stage in a whirl of feedback. The crowd took it upon themselves to fill the gap by reprising the "Oh my baby..." section from 'Tender'.
"I'm pleased we decided to do these gigs now!", announced Damon on his return, "We're gonna do some fast songs now".
Cue a vicious combo of 'Popscene' and 'Advert', all scissor kicks from Albarn and Coxon before a typically rousing 'Song 2' mutated from of a slow, building drum intro.
The band then left the stage once more, whilst the crowd resumed their 'Tender' chorus.
"This is the fourth time we've played here. It's been really really fantastic", gushed Albarn, returning with an acoustic guitar for an epic finale of For Tomorrow' and 'The universal'.
Long after the band had left the stage for the final time, the crowd remained, singing "Oh my baby" as an evocative tribute to what had been a majestic conclusion to one of the greatest Glastonbury Festivals yet.
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Blur's full set-list was:
She's So High
Girls And Boys
There's No Other Way
Out Of Time
Coffee And TV
Paklife (with Phil Daniels)
End Of A Century
To The End
This Is A Low
Click here to watch BBC Glastonbury Festival highlights on Virtual Festivals.