Live Music + Gig Reviews

Blur @ Hammersmith Apollo, London

25 July 2023

A performance of new album The Ballad Of Darren alongside a specially curated selection of rarities leaves us hoping the return of the beloved four piece can be prolonged that little bit longer

Blur, live at Hammersmith Apollo

Blur, live at Hammersmith Apollo (Photo: Phoebe Fox)

2023 has seen Blur play a variety of shows as they re-engage with the world of live music. There have been the early, intimate warm up shows followed by appearances at European festivals and, finally, the climax of two dates at Wembley Stadium. Tonight’s show at Hammersmith Apollo was to offer another different proposition, a livestreamed event that featured a performance in full of new album The Ballad Of Darren alongside some specially curated selections from their back catalogue.

Upon release, one noticeable characteristic of the album was the low-key, toned-down nature of most of the songs. For many, the band’s slower, more melancholic songs have always held greater appeal so the gravitation towards this style on the new album made a certain sort of sense. As a result the set up on stage and overall dynamic for tonight’s show was understandably different, with Damon Albarn mostly anchored centrally, behind piano or keyboards. 

The muted melodies and reflective lyrics of The Ballad set the mood, with Alex James taking the opportunity to lounge on a leather sofa with a cup of tea and cheeky cigarette in hand, his services on bass not being required for the opening song. The mood is further extended later on Barbaric, which proceeds in melodically nimble, fluid fashion. Alongside The Narcissist, it feels one of the songs with the best chance of remaining in future setlists. Talking of The Narcissist, tonight it represents the biggest singalong, benefitting from its prominent appearance in earlier shows this year. The other track familiar to those having seen the band already this year is the more spiky and animated St Charles Square, which tonight offers Albarn the chance to prowl the stage and interact with the front rows (it also sees most of the audience enthusiastically join in with the “I fucked up, I’m not the first to do it” opening line).

Blur, live at Hammersmith Apollo

Blur, live at Hammersmith Apollo (Photo: Phoebe Fox)

Hearing some of the new songs live reinforces certain viewpoints derived from listening to the record (Russian Strings has a certain mid-period Lambchop feel to it while Goodbye Albert wears its David Bowie influences unashamedly on its sleeve). There are other songs however where the live performance seems to offer an opportunity to peel back layers and discover new aspects and fresh angles (on Far Away Island and The Everglades, for example). As we approach the end of the album Avalon confirms its status as one of the stand-out moments, all golden brass coupled with a sense of space and poise. The Heights meanwhile does a more than fair job at delivering a poignant closer.

As the band reappear after a few moments backstage it’s unclear what will follow. In the end, it’s a collection of rarities and lesser-played tracks from various stages of their career that cleverly maintain the mood already established (following The Ballad Of Darren with the likes of Song 2 and Girls And Boys would have possibly been a somewhat jarring leap too far). Instead, we get Pyongyang from The Magic Whip followed by Clover Over Dover from Parklife, both sounding delicate and refined in their own ways (Clover Over Dover is perhaps less of a rarity, having been played when Blur made a fleeting appearance as part of an Africa Express show back in 2019).

Next, they move into even less familiar territory, playing the Syd Barrett-like baggy shuffle of Mr Briggs (the b-side to There’s No Other Way) and the strongly Bowie-esque All Your Life (the b-side to Beetlebum). The best is kept for last arguably with Theme From An Imaginary Film, ahead of which Albarn confesses he had “completely forgot existed” before they had started to prepare for tonight’s show. It’s a wonderful moment and a reminder of how it really deserved to have been included on Parklife.

The different structure of both tonight’s main set and encore helps shine light on the particular build up of energy and momentum involved in regular Blur shows. It’s a process and journey that requires careful management, not being a switch that can easily just be flicked on. “Would you like to hear something less obtuse?” Albarn enquires right at the close. The Universal is subsequently once again unveiled, sounding as majestic as ever, to cap not only tonight’s performance but what also feels like their recent run of UK shows. Earlier Albarn had referenced the “crazy journey” they have been on recently, and while they still have European and South American dates in the diary, the overwhelming feeling while exiting the venue is one of hope that they can somehow prolong their stay that little bit longer.

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