The disparity between the success Blur found in the UK at the height of their career and the success they found in the United States was impossible to ignore on Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. If you arrived before Courtney Barnett’s opening set, you would have noticed the venue’s relatively empty parking lot, confirming rumors that Blur’s American popularity is still reflective of their original run and that the US will never really appreciate the influential British rockers.
The sparsely populated audience didn’t seem to bother Barnett, another import from across an ocean, who made the most out of her Bowl debut. With her backing bassist and drummer, Barnett added muscle to her opening song, “Avant Gardener”, before focusing on her critically acclaimed 2015 album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
Only the laid-back album highlight “Depreston” was able to underscore her brilliant lyrics in such a huge environment, but Barnett’s music is such that it can exist even without the close reading it deserves — impressing instead through the sonics and force with which she performs. This was most true on “Small Poppies”, where Barnett would drift to the front of the stage and swing her guitar up near her head, and on closer “Pedestrian at Best”, with Barnett over-singing the song until her voice grew hoarse.
But then something happened. During the 30-minute intermission, people showed up. Not a sellout, but about three quarters of the way to the top, the seats filled in, and Blur’s attendance showing actually grew into something respectable. And not only that, but the fans proved to be some of the most dedicated and respectful in recent memory, singing along to words of not only the band’s best-known songs, but even some of the deeper cuts in the set.
Damon Albarn couldn’t hide the glee at performing in the venue. He spoke about what it meant to him and the band, how they’d always seen the venue on trips to Los Angeles, and how performing on its stage just never appeared to be in the cards. And you could tell that Albarn wouldn’t squander the opportunity, starting his band’s set not with music, but by soaking in the applause, shaking some hands, and even signing a record. And immediately when the set did begin with the trio “Go Out”, “There’s No Other Way”, and “Lonesome Street”, Albarn was completely engaged, spraying water on the crowd and often leaping at the songs’ emotional peaks.
The other members of Blur were given their time to shine, particularly Graham Coxon on fan-favorite “Coffee & TV”, but the night belonged to the Blur frontman. Part of the pleasure in watching him perform is how big of a kick he seems to get out of it. On the night’s first song, he walked back to sing along with his four-piece backing gospel choir, and by the time the night reached “Thought I Was a Spaceman”, he would travel onto the venues protruding half-circle to further interact with his fans. He wasn’t short on stories either, admitting to being only a so-so guitar player after “Out of Time” and then joking about trips through airport security, where officials wouldn’t recognize his band by name, but would identify the legitimacy of his career by simply one phrase: “Woo-hoo.”
And while performing “Parklife” with Fred Armisen might go down as the biggest takeaway from the event (Armisen hit a home run changing the lyrics to associate with Los Angeles), a couple of later tracks hit on the sentimentality of the event, juxtaposing the fun atmosphere of the concert with just what the moment meant to the band. Albarn’s declarations of “looks like we might have made it” during “To the End” and “it really, really, really could happen” on the night’s big finish, “The Universal”, both found the group in full victory-lap mode, their first proper Los Angeles concert (non-Coachella) since 2003 turning out to be the success that skeptics didn’t think possible. If the band does consider coming back to LA again, Tuesday night gave them a reason to think it would be worth it.
There’s No Other Way
Coffee & TV
Out of Time
Thought I Was a Spaceman
To the End
This Is a Low
Girls & Boys