Things Madrid is famous for: astonishing regal architecture, impressive urban planning with some of the world’s most beautiful parks and public spaces, immeasurable cultural and entertainment content, spectacular food, and afternoon naps. Things Madrid is not famous for: severe weather warnings and thunderstorms, especially in June. And yet, as the city dwellers zip up their bomber jackets on a shockingly dark and rainy afternoon on Wednesday, 7 June, seemingly out of the blue, we receive a curt email stating that the first day of the inaugural edition of Primavera Sound in Madrid is canceled due to “severe weather”.
The news comes as a straight-up shock. The biggest music festival in the Mediterranean and one of the most respected compound music events globally deserves a better start in a new location. After more than 20 years of outstanding popularity of the “original” Primavera Sound in Barcelona and a decade of its marginally smaller sister in Porto, this is the year Primavera is supposed to dominate the Iberian Peninsula with a back-to-back hat-trick of events with mirroring lineups. In fact, this is the year Primavera is set to take over the Spanish-speaking world, with festivals lined up for São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, and Asunción, the latter two also debuts. Perhaps that is a part of the problem, actually.
A spectacularly ambitious undertaking, Primavera Sound has, in recent years, been hyped for its cornucopia of industry conferences, music summits, and endless complementary shows in venues of all sizes to promote the main festival lineups in any given city. In Madrid alone, more than 50 events, including a free stadium gig (!!!) by the Pet Shop Boys on 7 June, takes place across half a dozen venues as a part of Primavera In the City, all intending to raise visibility. The Web3 Music Summit hosted by Primavera unfolds in the Spanish capital, all while the Porto edition of the festival kicks off that same day.
There’s a prosaic yet solid reason why most organizations scale more leisurely – growth is bloody hard and things become unmanageable in the blink of an eye. So yes, in all honesty, with the complete scheduling being a multiverse of madness, we did expect something to get out of hand. We didn’t think the entire first day of Primavera Madrid’s debut edition would be scrapped because of a bit of drizzle (there were, in fact, no severe thunderstorms around Madrid, merely “regular” rain, but the preproduction was adversely affected nevertheless). Blur, Halsey, New Order, Pusha T, Le Tigre, Darkside, and dozens more wouldn’t get to reproduce their triumphant sets delivered in Barcelona just days prior.
The outrage among the public, as well as the media, ensues with immediate effect. Accusations of poor preparation and amateur contingency handling pour in much harder than the showers from above. “I’m from Ireland, I know what rain is, this isn’t even rain, they fucked something else up,” a livid ticket holder says to me, unsolicited. Local media criticize the organizers for setting festival shop in Arganda del Rey, some 30 miles outside of the city, in an empty field with little concrete where any sort of precipitation could easily spell logistic disaster.
I, on the other hand, remain hopeful. Knowing that Primavera’s management has half the city mobilized and on red alert, I cautiously believe they might come up with something to make up for Zeus’ wrath against us, more specifically, they might find a way for Blur to perform. It’s 10 pm on a Wednesday: they have less than 24 hours to deliver before the band heads to the Porto edition, but hey, that’s what event management is all about. Mass hysteria and all-nighters.
The following day, Thursday, June 8, at exactly 12:39 pm, I receive an email with the subject line “IMPORTANT: Press reservations for today”. The good news: Blur will play after all, and the entrance is free for all Thursday or three-day festival ticket holders. The bad news: the English quartet will be performing at La Riviera, a lovely but modest indoor venue with a capacity of barely 2,000. The tickets will become available starting at 4PM through the festival app and will be handed out on a first-tap-first-confirmed basis.
“Ah, so it’s the hunger games,” laughs a friend who, luckily for him, decides against purchasing the $140 day ticket to see Blur live for the first time. Plenty more can be said about this highly unusual turn of events. While over 30,000 people were expected to watch Blur prepare for their July Wembley homecoming on a gargantuan stage, only a fraction of that number will now get to enjoy them in an intimate club setting.
The press, too, is notified that only a very small number of reporters will be let in, despite being accredited. No matter what, most of those who planned on spending that Thursday at Primavera will be sorely disappointed. On Friday, I listen to an entire bus of scorned attendees curse Primavera’s management for setting up arguably the most anticipated performance of the festival in a venue where but a fraction of those with a valid ticket can witness it. For pretty much all of the 20 or so people I interview, knowing Blur will end up performing but not being able to see them is worse than the cancelation.
I concede there is a complex ethical quandary to discuss here, but this article is not about ethics. It is about that insane, borderline mythical private gig by Blur that I actually get to see. This time, the odds are in my favor.
Fast forward to shortly before 8PM. Several hundred die-hards who secured access through the festival app barge through the doors to line up along the rails, with about 200 ticketless hopefuls quietly pleading security for access. Luckily for them, whatever rain was forecast for the evening pours down in a brief deluge as if on cue virtually minutes before the show; the soft-hearted Spaniards take pity and let everyone in. There are about 2,000 people present, though it seems that the venue could easily hold 500 more. Perhaps most of us are just squeezed too tightly in the front. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the audience is middle-aged, middle-class, high-brow, low-context urbanites, many of them Brits. A younger guy, maybe in his early 30s, is wearing an Oasis t-shirt in a display of sadly outdated irony and humor.
Fortunately, the Oasis t-shirt is the only outdated signifier of the evening, though it is far from the only ironic joke. At 9:35PM, a politically active solicitor, a decorated cheese-maker and food blogger, a painter closely associated with the Britart movement, and a dude who ran out of Fixodent for his gold denture walk into the room. Yes, I mean drummer Dave Rowntree, bassist Alex James, guitarist Graham Coxon, and Damon Albarn starring as himself, back together as Blur after eight long years. “Of course we’re here, we were never gonna let you down,” smiles Albarn while the venue trembles from the aftershock of glottal rapture. These men are veterans with an excellent sense of humor. We already know the show will be a triumph, not despite it being an improvisation in downsizing, but because of it.
The legendary English mordants are giving it another spin with a new album and a short warmup tour for the two homecoming shows they will play at London’s Wembley Stadium in July, the crown of their 30-plus-year career. The crowd cries out in ecstasy as Albarn slyly checks the pulse by eyeing the front rows, promptly launching into “St. Charles’ Square”, a track from their upcoming ninth release, The Ballad of Darren, out 21 July. It is an old-school Blur track with anxious Britpop guitars and drawn-out verses about a problematic relationship manifesting itself through everyday English tedium. The chorus even sees Albarn screaming out “aaaaaaaargh” after each hallucinatory line about one’s inner monsters, setting the tone for the rest of the performance effortlessly.
With a lesser band, the decision to open a reunion show with an unreleased song would likely backfire. Blur, however, does not fall prey to the inferiority complex. Quite the opposite – Albarn’s cockiness and the band’s self-assured performance come across as if they’ve time-traveled from 1994, intact. Even the urban middle-class casual or hipster fashion is still there, at least on the frontline; James and Rowntree are nondescript in monochromatic t-shirts, but Coxon is still a shy beaux art apprentice in a striped shirt and jeans, and Albarn is on point for the role, too, substituting semi-formal suit with a Fila tee for his recent Gorillaz apparel; that is neon socks, oversized shells with graffiti, and obscenely excessive golden jewelry. He’s even wearing glasses now, sturdy black frame, the kind your favorite, “cool” professor would wear. The line between midlife crisis and performance art is hair-thin, but these chaps walk it well and with a straight face.
This isn’t the first time Blur is reuniting after a hiatus. In 2009 the band ended a six-year break (and a break-up with Coxon) with two wonderfully emotional shows at London’s Hyde Park. After touring intermittently in 2015, they put out the excellent The Magic Whip, their first album in 12 years. Another seven years of hiatus ensued, but the itch to produce more music together apparently had to be scratched again, so here we are. The setlist, including the new stuff, is the same as it was in their peak Britpop era (1993-1997), which is melodically upbeat, verbally scathing, and hilariously ironic as a whole. The more experimental, layered, and pensive tunes from their latter-day career are almost completely left out, but more on that in a moment.
With what we’ve hear of the upcoming The Ballad of Darren, Blur is going back to their sardonic rootsl and the devotees are more than in for the rowdy ride. Hits, as well as low-profile fan favorites from their early works, are dished out in succession and with strong punky, garage even vibes. “There’s No Other Way” has virtually everyone sneering in unison with Albarn, while another early single, “Popscene” is met with equal enthusiasm. This is a hardcore setlist for a hardcore audience; that it happens to be taking place in a small, private club as opposed to a stadium makes it all the more powerful.
That said, while the sound and lyrical aesthetic of Blur’s most radio-friendly years might have stayed the same, the band itself hasn’t. Like most of their congregation, they are decades older than when all those lampooning lyrics of Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife were written. The young men, barely older than boys, who pointed with unprecedented disdain at the glib, tedious existence of moderately accomplished but entirely self-absorbed townies, are now in their mid-50s. They have morphed from art school hopefuls to superstars, branching out into activities as diverse as public policies, cheese-making, writing, and cartoon band management. The Ballad of Darren is named after, of all people, Albarn’s current and the band’s ex-bodyguard. Alex James literally lives in a house, a very big house, in the country. Graham Coxon gets up when he wants. I will not call anyone a “gut lord marching” in need of cutting down on their “pork life”, though age does, inevitably, change one’s body. The joke could go on writing itself were the band not acutely aware of the irony coming full circle here. But they are, and they don’t let us forget for one second that we’re all in the same boat.
During “Tracy Jacks”, a sardonic tale of a 40-something man going through a nervous breakdown, Albarn all but merges with the audience, allowing our screams to drown out his own. “I’d love to stay here and be normal, but it’s just so overrated,” howl the many middle-aged men around the stage before launching a playful “woohoo, woohoo” outro. It’s still remarkable how joyful and benevolent many of this band’s melodies are against the pitch-black, devastating lyrics.
“Trouble in the Message Centre”, “Chemical World”, and “Country Sad Ballad Man” all make their tour debuts and are met with impressive singalongs, if only nearer to the stage. It’s a true oddity to see a band confidently deliver a setlist to great extent made up of rarities, oldies, and otherwise less recognizable songs, but Blur works the narrative and the atmosphere magically. Not even midway through the set, crying en masse ensued to the greatly beloved “Beetlebum”, only to bounce right back into the swinging and sweating with “Country Sad Ballad Man” and “Villa Rosie”. The merciless symbiosis of highs and lows (often within the same song) works like a charm, with the uncannily small space of La Riviera, more suitable for aspiring indie acts, only enhancing the protracted elation.
Nevertheless, while I greatly admire the artistic integrity here, I take issue with some aspects of the setlist. After more than 30 years of work and eight (soon to be nine) releases, the announcement of their biggest shows to date at Wembley Stadium read like an opportunity for a career retrospective, but what we’ve gotten over the dozen or so warm-up shows so far has been nothing of the sort. Despite continuous reshuffling of what’s played, with up to half a dozen songs changed each evening, to date, the tracks from Blur’s more mature years have barely (if at all) made the cut.
Even though it was a potent, masterful comeback in 2015, The Magic Whip has been entirely omitted so far. It’s pretty much the same sad faith found 2003’s Think Thank and 1999’s 13, both emotionally mercurial, genre-bending albums of which only the hugely popular (and melodically straightforward) “Out of Time”, “Tender” and “Coffee and TV” are played. Clearly, the band is going for a more raw and intense path down memory lane but it’s hard to overlook a complete exclusion of the evolution that made Blur the artistic legends they ended up being (it also made Gorillaz).
Then there is the noticeable absence of some of the most prominent tunes that do make up, or at least fit perfectly with, the aforementioned canon of caustic societal scrutiny (the “Britpop” years, 1992-1997). In line with the wry tales of middle-class arrogance and decline, “Country House” and “Charmless Man” must be included. The lead single off of The Magic Whip, “Go Out”, also fitts their narrative and the sound brilliantly. Even “Trim Trabb”, the last of the three tunes from 13 they throw about live, is left out. There are more songs from 1995’s The Great Escape, like the biting, bass-driven “Entertain Me”, that comes to mind, but this album, too, is thrown in the bin at this performance, only represented through “The Universal” (and rarely, but not tonight, “Country House”). Why Blur decides to ignore about half of their opus is unclear but we’ll have to make do with what we’re given. I’m not complaining much in any case since the curated content is just as astounding.
After the tender, Coxon-fronted “Coffee and TV”, the second half of the setlist is pure catharsis. The quartet is careful to line up a banger after a ballad right until the end, thus not allowing the frantic energy to dive into mawkishness at any point. “End of the Century” is topped up with the monumental “Parklife”, with Albarn pointing at the audience and laughing as he sings. “And it’s not about you joggers, who go round, and round, and round,” he waves his finger at two guys on the rail. Everyone’s laughing with him, but we know the joke is on us. Many have become the people Blur mocked in their 20s.
“To the End” is one of the first tracks to evoke a venue-wide cry-along, and the burst of soppiness is augmented with a marvelous surprise of the old favorite, 1991’s “Sing”, perhaps the first indication of the genius Albarn would become revered for. The sustained, evocative piano chords are not allowed to last, though, fast slipping into the erratic, ludicrous “Intermission”, and ramping up the fervor with another tour premiere, “Advert”, followed by the climax of “Song 2”. Then again, a drop into the abyss with “This is a Low”. By the end of the main part, the air in the room is thick and fuming, brimming with sweat and tears.
The four-song encore is just as emotionally charged, starting off tenaciously with “Girls and Boys”, then culminating with extended, poignant singalongs to “Tender”, the new song (!) “The Narcissist”, and finally “The Universal”. The verses such as “every paper that you read says tomorrow’s your lucky day, well, here’s your lucky day!” sting more when you’re older, never mind if you’re 30 or 50. I cry the hardest at the end (no shame in that), but to my surprise, many of the 40-something dudes outpace me. One man sobs so much at the final choruses that he slumps to the floor. It’s a fantastic evening, if only for a select few.
“After all this time, we’ve come to regard you as family. You’re family to us. We hope we’re family to you, too,” says Albarn radiantly. As banal as this sounds, in this rare case, especially in such an intimate setting, it rings true. Having grown up and now getting older with them, Blur really does come across as family to many of us, and we know it’s family who speaks the truths that hurt the most.