"We've got to do something quite formal on Sunday," said Blur frontman Damon Albarn toward the end of the band's Friday night set at Sweden's Way Out West festival. "So this is a good way to prepare for it."
Few bands would consider a top-billed set at one of Europe's most prestigious music festivals a "warm-up," but Albarn has never been one to hew to tradition. The group is set to headline the Olympics closing ceremony celebration concert on Sunday evening in London's Hyde Park alongside New Order and the Specials, with Albarn claiming that the two-hour set may be the band's final gig.
On Friday, the band played a 21-song, career-spanning show, alternating between arch pop singalongs ("Song 2," "Parklife") and dramatic, orchestral anthems ("This is a Low," "The Universal"). Why 21 songs? Possibly because the band is celebrating their 21st anniversary with the recent release of their massive box set 21.
Watch Set Closer "The Universal"
The buoyant Britpop classic "Girls & Boys" opened the show and would set the pace for the mercurial Albarn's cheerful mood. Albarn's demeanor brightened as the show progressed, as the singer jovially threw water on the crowd during new song "The Puritan," jumped off stage to sing Modern Life is Rubbish b-side "Young & Lovely" in the audience and led a massive pogoing session-a dance involving jumping up and down repeatedly-for "Parklife."
Augmented by four back-up singers, a three-piece horn section and an oud player (the latter on the gorgeous, plaintive "Out of Time"), Blur succeeded in being all things to all men, utilizing a big band on tracks like 1992's "Popscene" and making the large stage seem intimate on "Beetlebum." At the end of the gospel-tinged "Tender," Albarn proceeded to play the coda on the melodica, an instrument favored more by the singer on 2002's Mali Music than his primary band. When guitarist Graham Coxon began playing the opening chords to "Song 2," arguably Blur's most popular song, all conversations stopped around me so the crowd could chant "Woo Hoo" en masse. (You shouldn't have been talking in the first place, but that's a different article.)
Albarn even took time to reminisce, acknowledging the sway that Sweden had on the band growing up. "When we were young, Sweden was the first country out of our home that we thought of going to," said Albarn. "It opened our minds a bit." Sucking up to the home country is to be expected, but Albarn appeared genuinely moved and nostalgic.
Heightened by the upcoming Olympics performance, Blur has been enjoying a career resurgence. "21," the recently released box set, contains all of the band's seven original albums, three DVDs and five-and-a-half hours of rarities, much of which contains previously unavailable material. A recording of the band's Hyde Park show will be available for download on iTunes starting Monday, followed by a two-disc set entitled Parklive one week later. In November, the band will release a 5-disc set, containing three CDs of show audio and a DVD of the Hyde Park performance.
Way Out West Setlist:
1 Girls & Boys
2. Tracy Jacks
5. Coffee & TV
6. Out of Time
7. Young & Lovely
8. Trimm Trabb
11. The Puritan
13. Song 2
15. This Is a Low
17. Under The Westway
19. End of a Century
20. For Tomorrow
21. The Universal