“Obviously we’ve been waiting for this moment our whole lives,” Damon Albarn said three songs into Blur’s biggest-ever gig. Even during Blur’s mid-90s ubiquity – millions of album sales, number one hits, Glastonbury headline sets – they weren’t so popular they could play two nights at the 90,000 Wembley Stadium. The sense of occasion rendered Albarn uncharacteristically humble. “I didn’t think it would be like this,” he beamed, genuinely taken aback.
That Blur can do this now says much for the powerful allure of nostalgia – perhaps why they went against convention and obstinately opened with a new song, the excellent Scary Monsters-era Bowie guitar squall of “St. Charles Square” from forthcoming album The Ballad of Darren – but also the enduring brilliance of these songs. Oasis may have won the commercial war; Pulp provided the era’s defining anthem with “Common People”, but Blur were the archetypical Britpop band in the truest, original sense: arty, clever, sexy and able to convey a depiction of Britishness that, like The Kinks and Madness before them, was recognisable enough to tap into people’s need to have their life reflected back at them.
What they weren’t known for, however, was warmth and unfettered joy: there was always something too knowing, too aloof. What made their Wembley debut such a triumph was the abundance of both (the camaraderie between Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, all laughs and loving looks, was perhaps the most heartening thing of the night).
In an electric atmosphere, Blur rose to the occasion with a magnificent set that, without any big pop show gimmicks that you’d normally see – the closest we get is the crowd buying some paper face masks of Darren, the titular character from the new album and an odd bit of theatre involving a roadside worker’s tent – instead relying on a band attacking their songs with rare force.
Now in their fifties, rounder and more grizzled, the members of Blur are essentially the same: bassist Alex James has maintained his nonchalant cool; drummer Dave Rowntree, recovered from injury, remains the steady hand. Coxon still coursed with kinetic energy, star-jumping, windmilling his guitar and, during 1992’s frantic “Popscene”, writhing on the floor like a toddler who has just been told he has to go to bed. The racket he makes with his guitar – often harsh and dissonant – was thrilling, enough to fill Wembley on its own. He sent the climax of “Beetlebum” into orbit and exploded “Trimm Trabb” into life; “Advert” was Coxon at his most punishing.
And then there was Albarn, in full rabble-rousing mode, prowling the stage and connecting every part of the stadium. “Wembleyyyyyyyy!”, he exclaimed during 1991’s giddy “There’s No Other Way”, sung second and kicking the gig into life. He gave a shout-out to Freddie Mercury over his Live Aid performance; during jaunty deep cut “Lot 105”, Parklife’s closing track, he ordered a Wem-ber-lee singalong. But he wrought real emotion from the ballads: “To the End” was swirlingly romantic as ever; 2012’s London-ode “Under the Westway” was the sort of huge, swelling anthem he does so well. “This Is a Low”, the most affecting song Blur ever did, was truly glorious.
The hits sounded vital. Phil Daniels cameoed on the amazing chaos of “Parklife”; “Girls and Boys”, which Albarn once called “inept disco”, had everyone dancing. “There’s something vaguely hilarious about old men throwing themselves about onstage” noted Albarn, which is true in theory (not to mention watching them). But when he followed that by playing a thunderous “Song 2”, it didn’t seem so ridiculous: the stadium shook to its very foundations.
The show wasn’t completely flawless: as on record, “Country House” was the night’s low point; the old knees up that beat Oasis’s “Roll With It” to number one in the battle of Britpop was a bit of a mess (though perhaps worth it for Coxon’s unimpressed face as he played along). But that was long forgotten by the encore: the beautiful “Tender”, with the band joined by the London Community Gospel Choir, turned heartbreak into collective joy; “The Universal” the fittingly epic finale.
“You lot are mad for sticking with us all this time,” Albarn said at the end. This special night was proof it was all worth it.