Scott called it a week ago, when he heard Blur were playing Fallon. Hell, for all I know, Scott made the whole thing happen through sheer force of will. Or maybe it was just magic. This is what he tweeted on Friday, April 24:
Blur play @JimmyFallon Thurs. How you gonna come to NY and not do a concert, @Blurofficial? Can we get these guys to St Vitus or something?
— Ꭶʗ⭕️ｨｨ (@scottgum) April 24, 2015
Four days later, on Tuesday, April 28, they announced the gig. Not at St. Vitus, but just down the road, at Music Hall Of Williamsburg. It was to be held on Friday, May 1, a day after the Fallon performance, and it was to be a free show at a small venue, much like the one Blur did in March at the London club Mode. It would not be easy to get inside. Still, three of us from Stereogum wanted to attend — me, Scott, and young classic rocker Ryan Leas — and by close-of-business Thursday, I believed all three of us might actually manage to make it work. I was so excited! I left Stereogum HQ that afternoon with Blur on my mind, and Blur’s new album, The Magic Whip, on my headphones. I walked out the door, headed south on 5th Ave., and suddenly, I was convinced that the guy walking in front of me was Blur bassist Alex James. I took his picture (a picture that bears an uncanny resemblance to this one, I now realize) and messaged it to Scott and Ryan:
“Pretty sure the guy walking in front of me is Alex James,” I wrote.
“Shout WOO HOO,” replied Scott.
“Do that,” replied Ryan.
I couldn’t do that, though. They guy had shaken my tail, disappeared into the crowd. It didn’t matter if he was really Alex James, of course. He could have been a lookalike. I wouldn’t have cared; it wouldn’t have killed my vibe. It would have been kind of cool, actually, kind of fitting. In Britpop’s heyday, there were so many lookalikes walking around New York City. I know because I was one of them! It’s funny, in fact, that Scott mentioned St. Vitus in that original tweet, because one of the guys who runs St. Vitus was one of them/us, too. I wrote about that, almost exactly one year ago, when Stereogum celebrated Britpop Week. As I said there:
I spent the better part of the second half of the ’90s working at the tiny Greenwich Village record store Rebel Rebel, which was New York City’s best source for British music… One of my co-workers at Rebel was a kid named Arty Shepherd, who today plays in the band Primitive Weapons and co-owns the Greenpoint bar St. Vitus. Back then, Arty and I used to pull these bootleg Blur photobooks off the shelves at the store and bring them around the corner to Thomas David Salon, where we’d show the stylist pictures of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, requesting the same haircut (or the closest approximation possible) for ourselves. We weren’t the only ones. I remember, at the Blur/Pulp show [held at NYC venue the Academy in 1994], my friend Kevin walking up to some random stranger in the crowd and asking if he was “the singer from Oasis.” Of course he wasn’t; he was just another lookalike, like all of us.
So you see, in a weird way, it would have been even more magical if the man on the street whom I’d identified as Alex James weren’t really Alex James at all! Right? That’s what I told myself, at least. That night, though, I watched the Fallon performance, and saw this:
That was it. I lost my mind. IT WAS ALL HAPPENING. I started going through my closet, trying to decide which Fred Perry polo to wear to the show.
Before I’d made my decision, though, I found out the sad but unavoidable truth: IT WAS NOT ALL HAPPENING. We didn’t have three tickets, we’d been informed; we had one. The venue was too small, and the guest list was too crowded. There were many casualties. For us, the decision was painful but in no way equivocal. It was Scott’s birthday week, and it had been Scott’s birthday wish to get a free Blur show in Brooklyn, so it was Scott’s ticket, period. I was totally heartbroken, but I wasn’t about to make my friend/co-worker/boss feel guilty about claiming a ticket that was 100% his to claim — not when I’d seen Blur four times already — so I pretended like it was nothing.
I consoled myself with the following: The band would surely focus largely on The Magic Whip, and while I absolutely adore the record, I think I might feel it a little too much to engage with it in public. I find it to be an intensely intimate and personal listening experience, not the type of thing one shares with a crowd. I didn’t want to hear people talking over “New World Towers” or “Pyongyang.” Those are songs you bathe in, by yourself, naked. They are gorgeous and delicate and overwhelmingly sad; they bring me to tears, and whatever they might do to you, they’re not things you want to anyone else to witness.
Again, that’s what I told myself. Then Scott called me, at 4 PM on Friday afternoon, and told me he wanted me to take the ticket. And just like that, I was pulling Fred Perrys from my closet. IT WAS ALL HAPPENING. Well, almost all of it. It wasn’t happening for Scott and Ryan, and I wanted them to come, too. I didn’t want to share those songs with anyone in the world, but I wanted to share them with those guys.
And honestly, you know what? I want to share them with you, too. I hate the idea of “reviewing” this show, because it’s not an experience that can be replicated. This same thing happened a couple years ago when I got to see Metallica at the legendary and intimate Apollo Theater in Harlem … on my birthday. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I got to be there because I’m incredibly goddamn lucky. You can’t really review that! You can only be deeply, deeply thankful.
So here’s what I’ll do — I’ll tell you what I can tell you about Blur at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, what I think might be valuable to you. Here goes:
- Blur’s entire set consisted of Magic Whip tunes. They played almost the whole album. They didn’t play “Ice Cream Man” — the tremendously beautiful song that provides the new album’s title — because, admitted Damon Albarn, they hadn’t worked out a way to play it live. Albarn promised that if and when Blur return, they’ll have it figured out.
- The new songs are not fragile or precious in the live setting. They are monstrous. They are loud and gnarly and full-bodied. That doesn’t detract from their plaintive watercolor melancholy, but it makes it impossible for anyone to talk over them.
- It also makes you recognize — in case you thought otherwise — that The Magic Whip is a Blur album, not a glorified Albarn solo LP. Every member of the band is playing the hell out of these songs, and when you see and hear them doing this material live, you can see and hear their vital and enormous contributions up close. These songs would be a substantial percentage smaller without any individual one of these men involved. (Realistically, these songs would not exist at all without any individual one of these men involved.)
- If we’re playing favorites, historically I’m an Alex James guy — the same way some people are George Harrison guys — but if you get to see Blur touring this material, you gotta watch guitarist Graham Coxon, because holy mother of god he is all over every second of these songs. This might be the most Graham-centric record since the 1997 self-titled album. And you might not hear that right away just listening to the thing on Spotify. But all those noises are coming from his guitar, his hands. And it’s amazing when you watch him making those noises with his hands on his guitar.
- But you gotta watch the rest of the band too, because they are still the best band. They make all the other bands look worse by comparison. It’s almost not fair. They looked so confident, so cool, so handsome, so brash, so manic, so relaxed, so happy, so arrogant, so jokey, so appreciative. They looked like they were having a great time together.
- They sounded that good, too!
- They encored with three old tunes: “Beetlebum,” “Trouble In The Message Centre,” and “Song 2.” The room shook when they did “Song 2″; I thought the floor was going to give way.
- Truthfully, though, the loudest ovation came at the beginning of the set, after the first song, “Lonesome Street.” The place ERUPTED and wouldn’t settle, wouldn’t stop applauding. I’ve been at Yankees playoff series-clinching games, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an ovation like that. It was the sound of a city saying thank you — for everything you gave us all those years ago, and for coming back.
Earlier this week, I did an Album Of The Week review of Mew’s wonderful +-, and in the introduction to that review, I suggested that The Magic Whip might be equally deserving of those honors, but, I said, “I’ve spent less time with The Magic Whip, and I’m still trying to decide if I love it or merely like it a lot.”
I’ve spent a lot more time with The Magic Whip since writing that, and I can firmly say now that I love it. I’d probably love it no matter whose name was on the cover, but I know too that the album couldn’t have been created by anyone other than Blur. The album is worthy of that name, that legacy. I don’t know how it happened but IT ALL HAPPENED. There was luck and opportunity and timing and a ton of hard work, but just listen to that music. See them live if you can — in a small room or a big one — but even if you can’t, just listen to the record! You’ll know what I mean, I think. You’ll hear it. Do you hear it? Man, I do. And I know that doesn’t just happen. I don’t know how it happens, but I know it’s magic.