You just can’t stop Blur. Despite the best efforts of even the band themselves, this Britpop force of nature won’t retire. The acrimonious split between frontman Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon was a painful thing to watch. Not only did it throw the existence of Blur into question, but fans worldwide bore witness to how two formerly close friends just couldn’t see eye-to-eye anymore. Albarn didn’t want to do any more Blur without Coxon, and Coxon didn’t want to do any more Blur. A lunch date for the four members ignited reunion rumors which Albarn and the rest were quick to shoot down. But they all spoke too soon. What started as a few reunion shows in 2009 has given way to future festival engagements and even some new studio recordings. To anyone comforted by Blur’s return, Parklive, a document of the band’s performance in London’s Hyde Park for the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, is a warm and fuzzy package. It’s got it all; a tight and hungry band eager to please, an electric audience on the receiving end, lots of nostalgia without the sap and a glimpse into the future without any reservations.
Parklive comes in a few different formats. There’s the 2 CD package, the DVD, and a 4 CD package with the DVD and an enormous book of photos. The expanded package features the Hyde Park show in its entirety, tracks gathered from other shows leading up to the Olympics and a warm up gig at the 100 Club in its entirety. It’s at least three-and-half hours of live Blur and you’re bound to have some overlap (the new single “Under the Westway” and its b-side “The Puritan” each appear three times). The Hyde Park setlist is mostly the kind of thing you would expect from Blur at this point in their career; heavy on their breakthrough albums Parklife and Modern Life Is Rubbish, carefully selected singles and fan favorites from the second half of the ’90s and only one single from the 2003’s mostly Coxon-less Think Tank. There’s only one early song, “Sing”, which wasn’t included on most pressings of their debut album Leisure. The surprises are the new song “Under the Westway” and the “Chemical World” b-side “Young and Lovely”, both of which are, according to Albarn’s stage banter, specific to London. Come to think of it, Blur really was working the London angle for this crowd with songs like “For Tomorrow” and “London Loves”. And everyone in the park is just eating it up. “What day is it?” Albarn shouts before “Sunday Sunday”, giving the gig that extra special touch to remind the audience that it was just for them.
There’s hardly a lyric that the great mass of people in Hyde Park were not willing to chant along with. Even when Blur is going faster than full speed ahead, the collective roar of “all the people” have no trouble keeping up with the “park life!”s and “woo-hoo!”s. Damon Albarn himself can only manage a sprechstimme on the opening hit “Girls and Boys”. And every live recording I’ve heard of “Country House” finds him out of breath by the time he gets to the bridge, Parklive being no exception. The crowd almost comes to his rescue for that one. And as a rule, veteran bands aren’t supposed to sound this nervy and volatile. Blur bulldoze their songs into the night as if their incomes – no, their lives – depended on it. “Jubilee” and “Popscene” are those herky-jerky slices of pop that put Blur into a class all their own in the ’90s, but these live renditions sure do bring the punk and spunk back into them.
The DVD captures this energy, even if it looks like an ADHD candidate did some of the editing – a common trait among videos of rock shows. There are also the big camera sweeps, seemingly random shots of the crowd and lots of a showboating Damon Albarn. The other personalities shine through though; Alex James standing like a badass, Graham Coxon just the slightest bit uncomfortable in his own skin and a professionally focused performance by drummer Dave Rowntree. There’s also added brass, background vocals, an oud player for “Out of Time” and Phil Daniels (“Oy!”). It looks and sound great, and is worthy of an independent purchase if you already have the 2 CD edition of Parklive.
And as exciting as that may sound, the warm up show at the 100 Club is an intriguing magnification of that energy. This is a venue with a 350 body capacity, so when Damon Albarn shouts into his megaphone, he’s doing it directly in the faces in front of him. Blur allow themselves to fly off the handle now and then, since this is probably the one gig where they could get away with it. Slam-dancing to “Advert” is probably a good way to break your neck and I almost didn’t recognize Coxon’s heavily-effected opening riff to the unfortunately overlooked “Bugman”. For some reason, each live rendition of “For Tomorrow” and “Buttlebum” I hear is slower than the album originals, but it’s important not mistaken a simmer for stagnation. They even try out “Young and Lovely”, “Under the Westway” and “The Puritan” on this small crowd. The last one in particular sounds fantastic. Who knew that Blur could kick so much upbeat ass after spending so much time apart? The third CD is more mannered, a few of the numbers receiving significant touchup afterwards. The two new songs and the Leisure outtake “Mr. Briggs” are so clean they almost don’t sound live. The next half dozen tracks come from another warm up gig at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. Since this venue seats a few thousand, it doesn’t sound as pummeling as the 100 Club date. It doesn’t add anything to the Parklive package overall, but it doesn’t diminish its quality either. It’s only 26 minutes out of three-and-a-half hours.
After wrapping up “London Loves” and before launching into “Tracy Jacks” (the first four songs of the night came from Parklife), Damon Albarn sends out an enthusiastic “yeeeaaahhh!!!” It’s not one of those labored get-on-your-feet hollers, but a genuine in-the-moment shout just because it’s all so damn exciting. Parklive is one of those live albums that can transplant any fan worldwide to Hyde Park that night, adrenaline included. If you ever took a shine to two or more Blur songs, you will doubtlessly love Parklive. This band has entered another prime, I suggest we all remake room for them.