Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Blur makes a brilliant MSG debut, my kids take Manhattan

Little makes me happier as a mother than sharing music with my sons. So when Blur announced just two U.S. tour dates for its Magic Whip Tour, I didn't hesitate in planning a trip around it. I remember the first day they heard "Song 2." My iPod was on Shuffle and we were hanging out in the playroom. I said, "You might like this." They were either 2 and 3 or 3 and 4 at the time. They were doubtful. By the end they were hooked.

Only their love of the Ramones has rivaled that of Blur. We watched their streaming Coachella set online two years ago and we took my oldest son to Raleigh in 2014 to see Damon Albarn solo (an incredible, intimate show). My mother and husband thought I was crazy to propose such a mid-school year family vacation, but I made a good argument and our tickets actually cost way, way less than the Uber ride back to our hotel after the show.

We chose not to tell our boys why we were heading North. Instead when we arrived at Madison Square Garden Friday evening we told them to watch the digital marquee until it rolled back around to "tonight." They were pretty shocked.

"We're seeing Blur?" my oldest son asked. "Tonight?"

The show exceeded my expectations. My husband and I are grizzled live music vets and aren't easily impressed, but having a child on your arm makes the experience new and exciting. And it was honestly a wonderful show with or without the children in tow (the youngest fading couldn't even kill it for us). I didn't find myself thinking about how to get back to the hotel or how our puppy was doing at home with my mom.

My 5 year old was probably the most animated person in the building for opener Courtney Barnett's set. He jumped for joy and said her name about 100 times between the door and our seats and met every one of her songs with "Right On!" and "Awesome!" His favorites were the bookends "Avant Gardener" and "Pedestrian At Best" (sadly no "History Eraser").

He sang along clapping and dancing to "Go Out," the first single from Blur's latest album "The Magic Whip," which kicked off its set following a snippet of "Ice Cream Man" - also referenced by the neon cones flanking the stage.

The sound was impeccable. According to this article on Albarn's solo tour, Matt Butcher is his and Blur's longtime Front of House engineer and he is obviously one versatile talent and my new favorite (touring) sound man. My husband marveled at the sound at Albarn's solo show at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre last year The huge, domed, Madison Square Garden sounded just as good. The clarity of Albarn's voice and Graham Coxon's guitar remained at the center, but the live horns, backing vocals, occasional synth, and rhythm section got the necessary pop as well.

Tracks from "Magic Whip," including "Lonesome Street," "Ghost Ship," and "Thought I Was a Spaceman," were interspersed between hits like "There's No Other Way" and band and fan favorites like  "End of the Century" from their back catalog. I would have loved to hear "Charmless Man" and "Country House," but did not.

The band's vibe seemed the opposite of its first Coachella set in 2013, which came off as lower energy as if they were still easing into the reunion.  The whole group reveled in the new tunes and surged against the crowd's enthusiasm. Albarn ventured into the crowd and towered on top of the barrier during "Trimm Trabb" (I believe that was the one, it's a bit of a blur. See what I did there?) Coxon dropped into a spontaneous backward role mid-solo more than once. Bassist Alex James and drummer David Roundtree kept their bodies upright, but appeared to be enjoying their first time headlining the Garden in 25 years (as Albarn noted) as well.

The crowd lovingly sang along with "Coffee and TV" and "Beetlebum" with Blur sticking closely to the set list it's used on this latest worldwide trek. Yet the real treat - and probably my top moment of the night - was when Albarn introduced a song he said they hadn't played much in 20 years. My oldest son's eyes lit up and he grabbed my hand as they started "Country Sad Ballad Man," from the 1997 self-titled record that really broke them in the United States and pushed Blur beyond the confines of the Brit-pop it helped invent. Coxon dove into psychedelic waters toward the end and Albarn bounced and followed suit with his acoustic guitar in hand.

Hollywood got Fred Armisen (for the Phil Daniels' part on "Parklife"), but we got an extra track. For the aforementioned "Parklife," fans pulled on stage handled the first verse in lieu of a celebrity (come on, New York!). Albarn said he had hoped for Mike Myers, but the audience - now on its feet after "Tender" - were having such a blast, it didn't even matter. It even roused my 5 year old, leaning on my shoulder in my arms, to sing along again.

The momentum from "Parklife" escalated with "Song 2." Everyone knew the words and almost the entire place was on its feet. The mood shifted for "To the End" and the stunning "This is a Low," which ended the regular set.

Since our son was fading, his brother and I peaked at the Hollywood set list online. He decided he wanted to stay through those old Brit-pop smashes, "Stereotypes" and "Girls & Boys," which both elevated the joyous party atmosphere.

We exited during "For Tomorrow" and missed the finale of "The Universal" (my son's not as into the slower ones). The next morning we all wanted to pinch ourselves that it even happened.

Even with a jaw dropping Uber to our hotel in New Jersey, a tireless wait for a cab on the way there, and the wind (I smartly purchased a hoodie at the merch booth because I failed to bring a coat to New York! Seriously), it was all worth it.

The show was entertaining from an adult perspective, but for our kids to say they saw their very favorite living band (because a lot of the greats are dead) at Madison Square Garden; for my eldest to be able to study what it's like to perform for a club crowd verses a arena crowd (and he studies every performance we see); bonding with the kind people we sat behind; and for it to be as great as it was, that truly makes all the difference.

I may be poorer for having gone, but I think we're all richer from the experience.