On the Road: The Ballad of Blur, Wembley, Darren, and Me.

A brief history

By the late ‘80s I had begun to omnivorously consume all the music I could. And I was growing fascinated by bands that were mixing rock structure with more organic dance rhythms—I thirsted for live guitars and drums that could simultaneously rock and groove—which meant I was an instant sucker for anything related to the “Madchester” sound at the time. 

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

One tune by a band called Blur caught my ear near the end of my freshman year of college*, and when I returned home to summer and discovered my little brother had been sent a promo copy of the band’s debut Leisure … that promo copy managed to make its way into my backpack when I returned to school.** But the album wasn’t just “dance” tunes; Leisure veered between “art-rock” and commercial stuff, and it was the attempt to blend those two worlds on a single album that fascinated me at the time. 

Over the years I’d marvel equally at both how the group eventually focused their sound into a classic guitar pop sound, and how that sound never seemed to quite break in America. Well, until a last-minute addition to their self-titled 1997 release introduced the world to the giddy wonder of shouting “woo hoo!” And people have been bouncing around all over the place ever since.

So I’m one of those rare American listeners who’s been a fan of the band since the very beginning of their public journey.

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

Sadly the only time I saw Blur play live was on the Think Tank tour, undertaken after guitarist Graham Coxon had left the band, and while it was a terrific show, I always felt the nagging feeing I’d never seen “BLUR,” y’know?***

When the group announced a surprise date at Hyde Park featuring Coxon’s return to join Singer Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree onstage in 2009, I was tempted to buy tickets, but hoped the group would eventually tour the States again. Again, in 2012, the band played a Hyde Park show to celebrate London’s hosting of the Olympics, and then a few years later released a surprise album named The Magic Whip, again whipping me into a frenzy of hope the band might come to America.

The thing is, Blur doesn’t need America any more—and the fact Albarn had already conquered areas Blur could never dent with his other project Gorillaz seemed to take a lot of the pressure to tour off the rest of the band. Eventually I gave up hope of ever seeing Blur and replaced it with hope that the band would at least continue to release new music; something that seemed less and less likely as all four members concentrated on other projects.

The moment of victory

Last year, Blur announced they would be playing a single gig at Wembley Stadium, which immediately sold out. But when the band announced a second show hours after the initial tickets sold out, I took a leap and bought a pair.

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

I’ve seen thousands and thousands of concerts over the years, in venues the size of a closet to massive stadiums to sprawling outdoor spaces. But nothing could adequately prepare me for an event like the return of Blur to their home country in the most prestigious stadium they could play.

I…I…I…I still struggle to encapsulate the experience.**** Because after seeing so many concerts, reviews usually flow out of me since I’ve done most of the work and organizing in the moment, just needing to apply additional context or expansions that occur to me afterward as I process.

But I don’t know if I’ve ever attended a show so personally anticipated featuring one of the bands most important to my own musical evolution. And while the last few albums have met middling critical reviews, I’ve never thought the band was sliding downward in quality. This is what made their long periods of silence so frustrating—Blur never stopped being a powerhouse. They never stopped being good. Heck, they never stopped being BLUR!

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

So, as I sat in a crowd of nearly 90,000 people and Blur took the stage to a tape playing “The Debt Collector,” nostalgic excitement washed over me. And then the band tore into “St. Charles Square” off their latest album The Ballad of Darren, and that nostalgia was sandblasted away by the Scary Monsters-esque guitars and explosion of energy as the band took command of the stage. It takes a lot of chutzpa to open a stadium show with a brand-new track, but it was a perfect move before the band switched gears and celebrated their past with a long string of classics beginning with “There’s No Other Way,” the tune to drew me to the group in the first place.

Since it was the second night at Wembley, and I know that even though there were only four people onstage most of the time making sounds (with some keyboard assistance here and there), playing a venue that size doesn’t leave a lot of room for setlist tinkering, so the crowd had a good idea what to expect. One of the downsides of the second night of a historic two-night engagement is that with more information it can be a little less surprising. And we did get mostly the same set as the night before, but with one new addition! Or, as Albarn quipped, it was Sunday, and on Sunday they play this song, and that song was “Sunday Sunday,” a boisterous and gleeful unexpected treat.

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

While I’d wondered if Blur would go full horns and backing singers for these shows, the band did keep it to the four main musicians for most of the evening, only bringing out actor Phil Daniels to perform his part of the anthem “Parklife,” and featuring the London Community Gospel Choir on the epic “Tender.” Beyond that, it was four school chums onstage making a lot of racket all by themselves, and moving around as if they were on their first tour again, and not simply taking a victory lap.

There was also a blink and you missed it moment following the band’s performance of “Out of Time,” the only song they played that Coxon didn’t originally appear on, as Albarn and Coxon smooched each other, a move I interpreted as “that’s all behind us and all that matters is who we are to each other now.”

You can see the full setlist for the evening here, since what I’m trying to do is convey more feelings than minute-by-minute facts here. None of my words can capture the vibe (exultant) or the crowd (perhaps one of the most “into it” crowds I’ve ever been in that never veered towards the aggressive part of that emotion). Even as we made our way to the Tube, the crowd would spontaneously start Blur singalongs, a clear sign no one wanted to let go of what we’d just seen.

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

The surprise album

Perhaps the most shocking thing I’ve learned in recent weeks is that when Blur booked Wembley, they had no other plans than playing the shows. But Albarn had been demoing while on the road with Gorillaz, and presented the band with a bunch of songs, suggesting they record an album, I assume to give the occasion some additional meaning. The time was right, the other three agreed, and they entered the studio to record The Ballad of Darren (out now!) unbelievably quickly for a band of their stature. 

The result? The Ballad of Darren is the best album (oh god, how I hate this phrase, but it is sometimes so true) since 1999’s 13. While 2015’s The Magic Whip was also recorded quickly, it felt more like a fun grab bag of music rather than a cohesive album, The Ballad Of Darren benefits from coming from a single batch of material, much of it thematically linked. And the band hasn’t sounded so savagely vibrant to me in years. 

The aforementioned slasher “St. Charles Square” and the lead single, the slowly flowering “The Narcissist,” do provide a nice sketch of what to expect within the parameters of this release, so if you’ve dug either of those tunes, you’ll dig the entire album. It’s also one of those rare late-career releases by an iconic band I would feel very comfortable introducing as a first listen to someone totally naive to the group’s music. 

So, what now?

Is this the beginning of a new fertile period for Blur? Or will we return to another ten years of relative silence from that camp? In a recent interview Albarn seemed to indicate there were a few projects currently in his queue, but future Blur material wasn’t out of the question. But who knows when that will be?

The only thing I can tell you for certain is that if Blur does play again in the future, no matter what country it happens to occur in, you shouldn’t miss that chance and snag yourself a ticket and plan a trip—who doesn’t want to experience a positive life-changing event, right?

Blur at Wembley Arena, July 9, 2023. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

*Don’t bother trying to do the math—I am much older than I appear.
**Sorry Sean, but I did eventually return the album, right?
***I did get to see Coxon play a blistering solo set at Double Door around that era, so in a way I did see the whole band, just separately.
****I know! I’m never at a loss for words, right?!

Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

Tankboy resides in the body of Jim Kopeny and lives in Mayfair with Pickle the Kitten and a beagle named Betty (RIP) who may actually be slightly more famous than most of the musicians slogging through the local scene. He's written about music for much longer than most bands you hear on the radio have even existed.