Blur's First-Ever Hollywood Bowl Show Brings Fred Armisen Surprise: Concert Review
The British band returns to Los Angeles after a 16-year absence. Fans, Damon Albarn delight in the moment.
For Blur fans, Tuesday was a historic night.
After all, it had been 16 years since the original members of the British band performed together in Los Angeles, and it was their first-time ever at the Hollywood Bowl. For a group that never quite achieved the same level of mainstream success as, say, Coldplay or even Brit pop rivals Oasis, talk about a “you’ve finally made it” moment. Singer Damon Albarn reflected on this by admitting, “I was nervous about tonight,” as the crowd encouragingly cheered in response. “I don’t know why. But I was. My innate sense of underachieving in America.”
The band had been on somewhat of a hiatus since 2003’s Think Tank, which did not feature original guitarist Graham Coxon, so the release of this year’s Magic Whip came as a surprise. In fact, the making of Blur’s latest album was something of a happy accident. After being stranded in Hong Kong following the cancellation of the Tokyo Rocks festival in 2013, the bandmembers decided to work on some new material. Albarn told Billboard about the reunion: “I was pretty hard-lined about not doing anything. And then there was this moment when I said, why not — there’s no pressure really; we’re in Hong Kong. … Because we weren’t making a record — in my mind we weren’t — we were just mucking around ideas.”
The album signaled a welcome return for Blur and was hailed in the press — The Telegraph described Magic Whip as a “triumphant comeback” and the Boston Globe called it a “slam dunk.” Although the stage was decorated with images of Magic Whip’s cover art — a neon ice cream cone — as well as feng shui mirrors referring to where the album was recorded, the set itself spanned Blur’s entire career.
After opening with Whip’s first single “Go Out,” during which Albarn thrust his arms in the air while singing with impressive force and conviction, Blur then delivered a flurry of classics, from Leisure’s “There’s No Other Way” to 13’s “Coffee and Tea” and the self-titled’s “Beetlebum.” Considering how long it has been since L.A. fans had heard these songs performed live, the audience was euphoric.
When introducing “Parklife,” which was originally sung by British actor Phil Daniels, Albarn brought out a friend … Fred Armisen, who was smartly dressed in a white suit and yellow tie. Armisen mused on the 1994 single, “This song could be about Griffith Park; it could be about Echo Park. What do you think?” Albarn deadpanned, “It’s about parks around the world.”
Armisen’s version of “Parklife” was tailor-made for the Hollywood Bowl crowd, with such lyrics as “If you want to avoid the 101, take Cahuenga up, and make a left” and mentions of trainers as well as dog and cat parks. This “Mocklife” had everyone smiling — both onstage and in the crowd — especially as Armisen and Albarn struck silly poses.
In typical Brit-style self-deprecation (when initially asked about a U.S. tour, the band cracked, “Maybe, if anyone’s interested”), Albarn joked of the band’s best-known single, “Song 2”: “Whenever we go through customs, they ask, ‘Who are you?’ ‘Blur’ never works … until we say, ‘Woo hoo.’ ” The anthem soon had nearly everyone in the house dancing along, proving even 18 years after its release that it remains one of the catchiest songs in Brit pop history.
Even before the encore, the set, which was amplified by four backup singers and a horn section, more than satiated, but the band pushed things to overdrive with a four-song finale that left the audience elated: The Great Escape’s “Stereotypes” and “The Universal” along with Parklife’s “Girls and Boys” and Modern Life Is Rubbish’s “For Tomorrow.”
For “Girls and Boys,” the band’s second best-known single, the crowd collectively bounced to the beat and expertly sang along to the somewhat confusing chorus: “Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys.” Then again, they’ve had more than 20 years to practice.
As the night came to an end, Albarn recalled years ago driving past the Hollywood landmark they had just headlined with dismay at having never played there. “I can’t express in words really how much this means to us,” said the singer, taking comfort in the fact that it meant a lot to the fans sharing the experience in real-time.
There’s No Other Way
Coffee and Tea
Out of Time
Thought I Was a Spaceman
To the End
This Is a Low
Girls and Boys
Photography by Chris Molina