Blackpool is a baffling place. You’ve got the strikingly modern renovated promenade with its ‘comedy carpet‘, while a bit further down you’ve got the adult shops selling everything one could, erm, possibly need.
Its piers and attractions have barely changed, although what was the hilariously bad Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum has now become the more reputable and commercial namesake. Meanwhile, you’ve got numerous grotty looking buildings that were once guest houses standing empty and derelict. In some parts Blackpool’s thriving, in many parts it’s decaying.
The town’s Empress Ballroom (which has played host to among others The Stone Roses) is hugely impressive, albeit with the odd ominous-looking hole in the ceiling. It harks back to the town’s golden Victorian period and is tonight hosting a band synonymous with celebrating Britain’s quirky and at times puzzling self-image: one that tries to be contemporary and forward-thinking but, as we see politically, is often rooted in the past. Much like Blackpool, really.
Yes, Blur are suited to Blackpool, recent ice cream-based iconography aside. If anything, they revel in it. Damon Albarn turns up on stage wearing novelty sunglasses spelling out “Blackpool”, the “oo” as the shades. Albarn is delighted by the Empress Ballroom, “the best venue in the country”, which obviously goes down well. He’s fired up for this; starting with Go Out, he’s practically throwing himself into the crowd – and many a bottle of water over them to cool them down in the process.
The crowd, a mix of mid-teens who have probably just discovered Britpop to those who are a bit older and wearing faded Blur tees, are well up for it. The mid-1930s oak and mahogany sprung dance floor is doing a marvellous job here. So much so that the barrier breaks at the front during There’s No Other Way and there’s a 10-minute break to get it fixed. It’s only the second song on the set. A waltz this is not.
The set is peppered with the usual crowd pleasers: Parklife, Song 2 (which come one after another – madness ensures), Beetlebum and an encore including Girls & Boys and closer The Universal with horns. However, it’s the less obvious tracks that arguably make the set; the likes of Badhead, Trimm Trabb and even Trouble In The Message Centre, which until recently hadn’t been played for about 20 years, all feature.
The greatly satisfying thing is that the new material easily stands up against the old; Lonesome Street, My Terracotta Heart, I Broadcast and Ong Ong in no way sound subservient or lesser than anything else performed this evening. If anything, they all link from the best parts of Blur’s repertoire: the poppy, the whimsical, the forays into the experimental and the arty.
What you also realise this evening is how brilliant and underrated Alex James is as a bassist as well. Politics and farm aside, he can’t be faulted – some of the bass lines from The Magic Whip are superb. He still carries that nonchalant charm. Meanwhile, Graham Coxon still straddles a line between the disinterested and the hyperactive while Dave Rowntree, as ever, does his stuff in that ever unassuming, consummate manner of his. You’d want him as your solicitor.
While Blackpool isn’t entirely flourishing, Blur are experiencing a re-birth. It’s not often you come out of a gig, soaked in sweat, knackered but delighted. This evening was probably the musical equivalent of going on your favourite fairground ride. It wasn’t particularly polished at times – there are a couple of ramshackle moments that needed a bit of improv – but by god it was so much fun and you want another go. Out of time they’re not.