Sometimes in life it’s hard to say no. Blur are not the first band to split under acrimonious circumstances and then find a way to patch it up on stage in front of thousands of paying customers. When they first reunited in 2009 it did feel like a natural progression, a full stop to a career that had taken a number of twists and turns. Four years later and they’re back, although it’s getting harder to see the point. A handful of new tracks aside, nothing has really changed. The setting of the Irish Museum of Modern Art is perhaps more appropriate than Oxegen for a band who always fought an internal battle over commerciality versus creativity but it’s fair to say their motives for being here have probably become more defined.
Such opinions are exasperated by their appearance. Tossing ‘Girls & Boys’ to the crowd like a rubber bone to a pack of dogs, they hardly looked delighted to be back on Irish soil. Plodding through ‘Popscene’ and ‘There’s No Other Way’, it looks as though we could be in for a long night. Two things save them though – some of their songs and their singer. While Graham Coxon and Alex James go through the motions, Damon Albarn gives it his all. Like a talented midfielder propping up an average football team, he keeps trying to drive things forward – on more than one occasion turning to urge Dave Rowntree on – and covers every available inch of space.
Early crowd pleasers dealt with, ‘Beetlebum’ ushers in a twenty minute segment that perhaps gets closer to the heart of Blur than anything else. ‘Out Of Time’ is just gorgeous, and the double 13 whammy of ‘Trimm Trabb’ and ‘Caramel’ sees them take it to another level. For once Coxon is an animated prescence, tinkering with his effects and combining with the brass section and backing vocalists to create a sound that fills the long, narrow space. It’s not quite what some of the audience have come for, however, with one particular group of lads near State responding by talking then singing ‘There’s No Other Way’ and – hilariously – ‘Wonderwall’. Given that the sound level isn’t the loudest (Albarn’s memories of their first Dublin visit in 1988 are completely lost) it rather spoils the moment.
The sense of relief when they return to the script, even with the comparatively light weight ‘Coffee & TV’, is palpable. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can rob the majestic ‘Tender’ of its splendour tonight. Sat next to the cheeky chappy combo of ‘Country House’ and ‘Parklife’ (complete with Phil Daniels for extra geezerness), it, ‘To The End’, ‘This Is A Low’ and ‘The Universal’ prove that Blur were always at their best when reaching for the musical stars, while encore ‘Under The Westway’ shows that they still have the mercurial touch when they choose to use it.
Not that they will. Once this summer is done, James will return to his cheese, Coxon to his tinkering and Rowntree to his legal duties, anti-death penalty work, campaigning for musicians’ rights and political activities (it’s always the quiet ones you have to keep an eye on). Watching Albarn race along the front row, slapping hands and drenched in sweat, you realise that there is one point to all this. He needs this. World music, soul icons, opera and cartoon bands are all very well, but Damon Albarn also has to be a rock star. With Blur having less and less distance left to run, you wonder if he’ll ever get the chance again.