When I was in school, social media did not exist as it does today. We had passive-aggressive AIM away messages, Angelfire midis, Geocities fansites, shameless fan fiction. It was a good time to get into a band because you could track down interviews from overseas, order rarities from eBay, find friends who had a tape copied from a tape so you could see a low quality concert video. I had favorite bands before Blur, but they were the first to really send me down the rabbit hole of self-discovery.
First of all, there was the culture. Blur were a very specific sort of English band in the Britpop scene, and they wrote about English characters, English politics, English existence. Damon Albarn didn’t bother to use a generic American accent for his singing. They wore their influences on their sleeves, from The Kinks to J.D. Salinger, astronomy to computer animation. They were curious and cheeky, and they made me be the same. I had a copy of A Clockwork Orange that was passed around my high school so much that it became dogeared and battered from all the friends who read the novel. I don’t know if I would have picked up that book had it not been for the video for “The Universal.” The band inspired me to write and to draw. Through them, I connected to fans online who are still my friends to this day. We give girls a lot of grief for band obsessions these days, particularly on social media, but I don’t want to know what I would have done with Twitter back then. All I know is that because this band clicked with me, I took in so much culture and became a smarter person.
Of course, the years intervened. Graham left the band, and then they went their separate ways. I tried to keep up with the side projects, particularly Gorillaz and Graham’s solo albums, but sometimes other things just caught my attention more. And that was fine. I accepted the fact that I had gotten into Blur too late to ever have a chance to see them live, and I told myself that it wouldn’t be quite right with Simon Tong in Graham’s place anyway. It was the risk of falling for a band that was far more popular on the other side of the Atlantic anyway. (Of course that didn’t stop me from mostly favoring non-American bands to this day, but that’s another story.) I’ve been through a few computers and iPods since my teen years, but there have always been Blur songs there. Each revisit to their music reminded me that they weren’t just of an era. They were part of my history as much as old friends.
Last year I had a chance to see Damon Albarn play Irving Plaza in support of Everyday Robots. I love this record, and I managed to get myself in the front row. I told myself not to get my hopes up too high since I was used to seeing the high leaps of Starshaped, and this material was far more introspective and experimental. I must have set my expectations a bit too low, because I was blown away. Damon had even more charm than I remembered from old videos. He made eye contact and sang directly to you. He uncapped bottle after bottle of water to drench audience members. People were whipped into a frenzy, and he sometimes just stood back to admire his work. He wasn’t smug though; if anything, he was humbled by such a reaction from the American audiences that had been so elusive to Blur’s early days. I had the time of my life that night. He played a couple of Blur songs, and Damon grabbed my wrist to haul himself up on the barrier for an electrifying version of “Clint Eastwood.” YouTube can back me up around 3:36 in this video. Swoon.
That would have been a lovely end to it, but came The Magic Whip. It’s an extraordinarily layered album for coming out of jamming for a couple of weeks. Then Blur announced an intimate free show at Music Hall of Williamsburg. The original four. I was at once thrilled and horrified because I sensed I would not get a ticket. Sure enough, they were gone almost immediately. My friend Heather, who I met at Damon’s Irving show, got through but only nabbed one. I was happy she’d get to go, but it was hard to keep listening to the new album knowing I’d be missing out on the band in my own borough. I could accept missing a tour when I lived in West Virginia with no license to get myself to another city for a show. A few stops away on the L train? It was gutting. I even resorted to prowling Craigslist, where these free tickets were being scalped for $100+.
I got up for work and felt deflated since it had been a tough week. I didn’t put much effort into getting ready since I was exhausted and might’ve stayed up too late the night before drinking tequila and watching Deadpool clips on YouTube. Then I had two strokes of luck. Heather had managed to see someone offering a ticket on Blur’s Facebook page for free. She would let me know if it was legitimate. In the meantime, a friend Lindsey let me know that her friend had a spare. No matter what, I was covered. My body was bruised and scratched from a week of packing, unpacking, and even shredding boxes for an office move, and I was running on empty. But I was elated. I was listening to “The Universal” in the Union Square station and nearly burst into tears at the chorus. It felt cheesy even to me, but “it really, really, really could happen” just hit home in that moment.
Heather’s spare turned out to be the real deal. And free! After days of considering parting with a huge chunk of change, I got in free of charge, the way it was meant to be. The opener Honduras was definitely more Converse’s style, a kind of punk rock with surf influence. They did their style well, but it didn’t really fit with Blur’s aesthetic. That didn’t matter though. Heather and I could not stop laughing hysterically about being there. I’ve never had that kind of giddiness before. It didn’t matter then how bad my week had been, how much pain I was in, how I hadn’t even had time for a cup of coffee that day. As soon as the band stepped on the stage, it really sank in. I was seeing the band that had so inspired and challenged me as I transitioned from youth to adulthood. The tears came then, and they refused to stop through the first song, the wonderfully energetic “Lonesome Street.” I knew I probably looked crazy, but I was overwhelmed by emotion. Judging by the screams after every song, I could tell I wasn’t the only one.
This was the first show Blur had put on since releasing The Magic Whip, and they played the album in full minus “Ice Cream Man” (which Damon said they hadn’t arranged to their satisfaction yet, but they’d play it if they came back). Each time the crowd roared, Damon oscillated between feeding the frenzy and just looking on in delight. You would think they were playing only their greatest hits from how engaged people were with singing along, dancing, screaming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more excited audience in New York, and I go to a hell of a lot of shows. The entire band seemed to be in great spirits. Damon was pogoing like he was half his age, throwing water on us yet again and soaking Heather’s glasses. Graham got in on the action later and threw Red Bull on my friend Ken, which might’ve been even more exciting. Alex made his aloof looks that were so amusing. Dave’s face was hidden from me, but I’m sure he was enjoying himself. At one point, Damon spontaneously hugged Graham, caught up in the energy of the show. After a moment’s pause, he hugged Alex as well. By the time he made it up the drum riser to hug Dave, the drummer laid a kiss on him. This was the sort of behavior you only get from a band genuinely in awe of the love around them.
As good as The Magic Whip is as an album, it works better live. I wasn’t fond of “There Are Too Many of Us” before, but it had a sinister build that delivered a punch at the end. There wasn’t a single boring point. “Ong Ong,” the delightful singalong toward the end of the record, even got some people moshing. The wait for the encore was deafening since we all knew they could only play old songs for us. The first was “Beetlebum,” a song I never thought I’d hear live. I teared up again and held it together, mostly because people were getting rough with their dancing again. The full guitar outro came through with clattering energy, overwhelming the cheers that had started before the band was even done with the song. “Trouble in the Message Centre” was next, which I haven’t listened to in years. I know they played it in London, but I was shocked by the deep cut appearing on a US setlist. People ate it up, and that was how you knew that the room was filled with genuine Blur fans. The ending track was “Song 2,” and the push forward toward the stage was overwhelming. Nearly everyone was screaming and jumping. There was nothing to be done but to give in, to become part of this chaos. We stumbled out into the night on stiff legs and laughed again, wiping away the water and the tears. I read in a recent Rolling Stone article that the band was uncertain about touring America for this album. The demand needed to be there. If they don’t tour The Magic Whip on a full US tour, this gig was still worth waiting half my life.