Blur, easily one of the most celebrated UK bands of the 90s, did not end well. Following the quite excellent ‘13’, infighting and general dissatisfaction led to guitarist Graham Coxon leaving the band. The void proved to be impossible to fill and while ‘think tank’ was a reasonable album, the subsequent shows were nowhere near the blistering experience of the ‘blur’ tour. And then, quietly, Blur disappeared. There was no farewell tour, no spate of live DVDs, just a slipping of the various members into side-projects and a large space left where Blur used to dominate the festival scene in the summer.
Following the quiet dismemberment of the band, it was notable that few live albums were released, although plenty of ‘best of’ material surfaced, and ‘Live at the Budokan’ which was an import only release in the UK anyway was rather poorly recorded, sounding overly claustrophobic and doing little to capture the manic energy and overwhelming noise of Blur in the live environment. Video and DVD fared better with ‘starshaped’ proving to be decent but pretty old, and fans with fond memories of the devastating tours that followed both ‘blur’ and ‘13’ were left bereft of mementos. Happily, with the band reformed we’ve been treated to several new releases of which this latest set is easily the most impressive.
What makes ‘parklive’ so exciting is two-fold: the set-list which perfectly encapsulates the whole of Blur’s history (and unlike some other bands Graham is not too proud to play songs from ‘think tank’, the album from which he was almost entirely absent); and the production, which far better captures the Blur live sound than any other recording to date. What impresses is the realisation of just how good a band Blur have always been. Middle-age suits them and whilst this set draws heavily from the ‘parklife’ album, the more guitar-focused sound that has always been the band’s live trademark showcases the myriad influences that combine to make Blur such a thrilling act. Hints of The Who, Sex Pistols, Clash, music hall and disco all collide on songs such as the effervescent ‘girls and boys’, the punkish ‘Tracy Jacks’ and cheeky ‘London loves’; and that’s before you even get to the impressively arty squall of latter-day bruisers such as ‘Trimm Trabb’ which is rendered here with such immense volume it’s amazing that the audience didn’t go deaf for days.
To return to the set list, it is notable that Blur are no greatest hits revivalists. This is a selection that plays to the band’s many fans and proudly celebrates Blur’s many moods and sounds. Hence you get the joyous ‘sing’, the still-absurd ‘country house’ (sounding all the better for Graham’s amped-up guitar attack), the devastating ‘pop-scene’ and ‘song 2’ and the haunting ‘no distance left to run’, alongside new track ‘under the westway’ and obscure b sides. No period in the band’s gloriously varied history is left out, and the roar of the crowd suggests that Blur were right to believe in themselves and their world class back catalogue. Indeed, not only do you get a massive roar between songs, but in many places the huge throng singing along word for word are almost as loud as the band (this is especially true on the DVD, which has a surround sound mix to die for).
For those plumping for the DVD option (there’s also a double CD and all-encompassing box set available) the visuals are hugely impressive. Well-paced and edited by director Matthew Amos, the excitement and sheer size of the event (which took place in London’s sizable Hyde Park) is perfectly captured without any of the overwhelming trickery and special effects that mar many live DVDs these days. The stage set is suitably grand and the band, much as in the old days, move little compared to the almost constant blur of motion that is Damon Albarn, a singer who refuses to be grounded and who, therefore, is the most constant focus of attention, although Graham gets plenty of time in the spotlight as he mangles his guitar on ‘Trimm Trabb’ and takes lead vocals on ‘coffee and TV’ – it is a brilliant piece of rock music filming and Matthew deserves as much credit for his thoughtful work as the band do for their sterling performance. For those more interested in the audio options, DTS, unfortunately, is not included, but a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix impresses on almost every level whilst the PCM mix is also crystal clear, beautifully presenting the band in the strongest possible light and kudos is due here to Will Shapland and Matt Butcher who do a fantastic job of capturing the many elements that were on stage that night.
For long time Blur fans, ‘Parklive’ is the sound of triumph. A pristine production, a flawless performance and a set-list which truly offers something for fans of all the bands many musical twists and turns (whilst, remarkably, sounding cohesive at the same time), it captures everything that is great about the Blur live experience: the sweaty intensity, the guitar mangling bridges, Damon’s cheeky humour and even guest appearances (Khyam Allami on the lovely ‘out of time’, Phil Daniels larging it up on ‘parklife’ and Harry Enfield, bizarrely, as a tea lady on ‘parklife’ and ‘Colin Zeal’) while the brilliant horn section add extra depth to the frantic punk thrash of ‘popscene’ and a touch of grandeur to the beautiful coda of ‘for tomorrow’ – it’s hard to imagine anyone asking for more from the concert, and we can only hope that the next step will be for Blur to hit the studio once again.
DVD and Box Set Extras
The DVD offers little in the way of extra features – in this case the concert really does speak for itself – but you do get ‘under the westway’ in three versions (the original music video, a live video and a lyric video) and the Puritan in two versions (a live video and a lyric video). It’s not exactly an exciting haul and in a perfect world an interview or two about the occasion would not go amiss – particularly given the size of the production and audience.
The box set, on the other hand, offers quite a bit more with the DVD and the original double CD album packaged up with two extra CDS offering tracks from the 100 club, BBC sessions, Wolverhampton and more. This is where true fans will find the meat missing from the bare bones versions and the case-bound book is not exactly shabby either, although some might find the price tag (around the seventy pound mark at present) rather off-putting and it’s a shame there’s no further DVD material on offer as well as the audio.