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“Well, that was a disaster,” Damon Albarn said two songs into the set. The Blur frontman’s attempt to hand out Mr Whippy ice cream cones to fans at the front of the audience had ended in a messy melée. It will surely be the last time a rock singer tries to breach the fourth wall with vanilla soft-serve confectionery.
There were other risks at a drizzly Hyde Park too. Having apparently ended their five-year reunion at the start of 2014, Blur emerged this year with a surprise new album, their first since 2003. The Magic Whip has been welcomed as a Lazarus-like return by one of the key British bands of the 1990s. But incorporating it into the greatest-hits setlist they’ve been touring since 2009 presented a challenge.
The foursome — vocalist Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, drummer Dave Rowntree — opened with new song “Go Out”, whose jerky rhythms and clangorous feedback clomped into view like Frankenstein’s monster. Next came the baggy lollop of 1991’s “There’s No Other Way”, a relic of the days of “Madchester”, beefed up tonight by a fierce psychedelic guitar solo from Coxon.
Other juxtapositions between old and new were less successful. “Beetlebum” inspired a mass clap-along as soon as Coxon struck up its wonderful introductory riff. But the energy fizzled away with the downbeat new song, “Thought I Was a Spaceman”, which only took off with its closing guitar solo. Classic ballad “This Is a Low” was ill-served by being followed by itchy new song “I Broadcast”.
Albarn attempted to glue the disparate pieces together through force of personality, leaping about in his Fred Perry shirt as though the nation were still in the grip of Britpop mania. The sound was less muted than when they appeared in Hyde Park in 2012. Coxon’s command of distortion and other guitar effects was masterful. Yet an unsettled tone prevailed, until a closing sequence of old favourites gave everyone present the chance to pogo along to “Song 2” and “Girls & Boys”.
The Magic Whip’s most appealing characteristic is its unpredictability, the sense that Blur aren’t sure themselves what they’ve unleashed by re-entering the studio. It is the product of a band that has outgrown the kind of anthems that make tens of thousands of people jump up and down in the open air. The result at Hyde Park wasn’t as messy as the spilt ice cream. But nor was it the hoped-for treat.