When it came to choose a band to close out the 2012 London Olympics in Hyde Park, there quite literally was no better choice than Blur.
After all, this was the band that co-led the Britpop movement in the mid-’90s with Oasis, the noted antithesis to America’s predominant grunge fascination at the time, giving a rising sense of national pride to a country that needed it, all wrapped up in art-school character studies instead of jingoistic nationalism. While Oasis created universal rock anthems that perpetually mined a never-ending vein of Fab Four mimicry, Blur were spending their time writing songs that were about Britain and British culture, and they struck a powerful chord with listeners all across the nation. To be fair, Pulp were doing almost exactly the same things, but were doing so with a very healthy helping of cynicism, which didn’t fit in very well with the Olympics theme of outright British unity, which is probably part of the reason why Morrissey wasn’t asked to perform either. While the closing ceremonies at the Olympic Stadium featured a wide gamut of British legends (The Who, Pet Shop Boys), rising stars (Emeli Sandé, One Direction), and, er, inhabitants (Russell Brand), Blur took to Hyde Park with 80,000 sweaty, excited fans in tow, and Blur were able to close off one hell of a victory lap to their well-received reunion by playing, quite literally, the biggest concert of their careers.
With Parklive — available in a variety of formats, including a rather intimidating four-CD/one-DVD edition — Blur have released one of their most definitive live documents, and they picked a pretty great note to go out on, considerably upping the energy from their already-amped 2009 live set All the People: Blur Live at Hyde Park. On this DVD, things open with the band’s white-on-blue logo plastered across giant video monitors that slowly separate, causing the gigantic crowd to go bonkers as singer Damon Albarn, drummer Dave Rowntree, bassist Alex James, and back-in-the-game guitar god Graham Coxon all take the stage on a set that looks striking similar to the cover art for their new reunion single “Under the Westway”. There’s little ceremony as Albarn welcomes the crowd, the band soon open things up with a bang: their massive disco hit “Girls & Boys”. The crowd screams, singing along to every word and monkey sound that Albarn makes (don’t you recall his ooh-ooh-aah-ow post-chorus chant?), and it’s obvious that the band is feeding off the seismic energy. The next rip through three more songs from their iconic 1994 disc Parklife, all non-singles to boot. Immediate familiarity doesn’t seem to bother the crowd all that much though, as they have a mosh-y good time with the group’s upbeat pop janglings.
(Interesting to note, however, is that the mix between the DVD and the live CD sets is somewhat different, particularly in terms of Coxon’s guitar at the onset. While his strums come through just fine on the DVD, it’s the audio recordings that seem to keep him a bit hushed in the beginning, especially on “Girls & Boys”, where you really do have to strain to listen to him. At times he disappears into the mix intentionally, as on the slightly out-of-tune “Out of Time” — which, of course, is from Think Tank, the album he barely appeared on — but by the time he gets “Tracy Jacks”, the audio CD matches up with the film mix pretty closely; shame the same can’t be said for the background singers, who barely cut through anything, particularly on the song that should be their highlight, “Tender”.)
The concert’s first half hits a bit of a snag once the melancholic “Out of Time” hits, as the group then unleashes a half-decent, mostly-forgotten B-side (“Young & Lovely”), along with a few album cuts from the experimental 13 (“Trimm Trabb” is a right slab of weirdness, especially as Albarn makes his way out into the crowd to make baby sounds before tossing up the ol’ Union Jack, but “Caramel” proves to be a surprisingly effective come-down from the energized opening of the show, creating a nice mood before going into full on freak-flag mode). Once the band breaks into that descending opening drum pattern from “Country House”, though, the crowd gets whipped into a frenzy all over again, and the masses take great joy in again singing every word to a song that everybody there already knows. “Phil!” Alabrn shouts at the end of the song, signaling a surprise appearance by the guest vocalist on “Parklife”, Quadrophenia‘s Phil Daniels. Even with a bit of age on him, Daniels attacks the song with relish, his gravely voice covering every sentence Albarn ever fed him with a new sense of purpose, resulting in one heck of a close to the first CD of the set.
Interestingly, the band starts working backwards after this, tackling a lot of Modern Life is Rubbish-era cuts, ranging from “Colin Zeal” to fan favorite “Advert”, the latter in particular played at a furious pace (Rubbish and 13 get five cuts apiece on the setlist, with The Great Escape and the self-titled each getting two, Parklife dominating with seven altogether). What’s great about the DVD of the concert is what happens after “Advert”: the crowd engages in some “follow-me” hand gestures by Albarn — all creating hearts over their heads — after which Albarn breaks out his acoustic guitar, gets a wild look in his eyes, then runs over to Coxon, back to Rowntree, and puts the acoustic down. What’s happened? They changed the set list a bit, and have decided to play their big American hit “Song 2” just for the heck of it, the crowd pulling off a better “woo-hoo!” than Albarn ever could live (on some of the era-specific live B-sides, he lets out a terribly awkward “Yahh-hoo!” that does not benefit his already-everyman voice). Albarn than picks up his acoustic again, confers with band members silently, and almost puts it down again, before picking it up. Another addition it seems: the vulnerable ballad “No Distance Left to Run” — one of their last Coxon-era singles (and one of their greatest). Unlike the moody freaking that was “Caramel”, this haunting lullaby feels like a far more natural addition to the set, flowing remarkably well out of the punk rush of “Song 2”, and soon leading the band to the sing-along to end all sing-alongs: “Tender”.
Earlier in the evening, you could hear the crowd start chanting the chorus to their gospel-infused hit, but once the band breaks out a nine-minute rendition of it, it’s almost as if everyone in the audience is swaying along, hugging their best mates, and chanting along with Albarn’s most optimistic of phrases: “love’s the greatest thing that we have” (hell, Coxon doesn’t even finish playing the opening guitar riff before the crowd joins in at full volume — the pent-up demand for this song is uncanny). The song rolls on and on, even dying out, but the crowd keeps the chant alive, somewhat amazingly, causing Albarn to jump back in and the band to do one more verse. All in all, it’s a rather incredible call-and-response moment, leaving the band to end on a smaller scale with Parklife anthem “This Is a Low”. It’s solid, for sure, but doesn’t leave the same emotional impact that “Tender” does.
Of course, the band couldn’t end on that note — not tonight. After a short interval, they come out on stage to break out their only selection from their debut album Leisure: the proto-Coldplay cut “Sing”, which they seem to very much be revitalizing as one of their early masterworks, having already received prominent placement on 2009’s updated Midlife retrospective. The top new ballad “Under the Westway” gives way to the playful instrumental bash of “Intermission” from Modern Life is Rubbish, and the band then ends with three iconic cuts: “End of a Century”, “For Tomorrow”, and — of course — “The Universal”, the latter of which, with its uplifting horn coda, serves as a perfect closing note for the clearly-emotional band, realizing that few things in their career will ever top such a mountainous concert. Although the set was laced clearly with nostalgia and a few choice deep cuts, there is never an out-and-out “wow” moment — just several very good, sometimes rather exceptional bits of a group that is very much locked into a fantastic groove during their reunion.
Thus, it’s a bit disappointing that for the massive Special Edition of Parklive, the bonus bits don’t really add up to much. Between the miscellaneous live extras and the very small 100 Club show, the group plays amicably well but don’t do anything out-and-out life-changing. They run through a lot of the songs that would make their way onto the Hyde Park show (“Young and Lovely” in particular gets a workout), and break out live B-side “The Puritan” to mixed results. There’s nothing incredibly noteworthy about these more intimate live recordings, but they have little appeal beyond hardcore collectors (props, however, must big given for daring to try the grungy “Bugman” live and on stage).
All in all, it’s true, Blur playing the closing ceremonies for the London Olympics was an absolutely inspired choice. While some may certainly have wished for a Pulp-at-Glastonbury-’95 moment of transcendent revelation, the truth of the matter is that Blur nonetheless gave a rousing show, expertly executed, well-performed, and with one of the most generous, excitable crowds one could ask for. For the Olympics, it was a wonderful coda, and for Blur fans, it’s virtually everything they could ask for.