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Arts: Pop: Back on song

"SSHHH. YOU can't say that on the radio," scolded singer Damon Albarn at a licentious groupie who suggested that her tousle-haired idol show us a certain part of his nether regions. Similar proposals were bouncing off the walls for the duration of this special session, a concert that was intended to be a low-key event for BBC Radio 1 listeners but had inadvertently become the pop event of the year.

Throughout their nine-year career, Blur have ping-ponged between mod and baggy, indie pop and avant garde, punk rock and joke rock. They first found mainstream success in 1994 with the brash Parklife, though their follow-up album The Great Escape was thrashed by Oasis in the race to be Britain's biggest band. Despite being labelled as their most difficult album, Blur's eponymous LP of 1997 saw a welcome departure from the clutches of Britpop while their latest album, 13, sees them following the same anti-pop path.

Blur were performing in order to showcase their new material, a collection of songs written in the aftermath of Albarn's split with his girlfriend, Elastica's Justine Frischmann. But far from being a monument to the broken-hearted, 13 is a sublime and bravely experimental creation, featuring psychedelic textures and discordant instrumentals that owe as much to Krautrockers Can as Blur's old favourites Pavement.

But while lyrics such as "It's over, you don't need to tell me... I won't kill myself trying to stay in your life" (from "No Distance Left to Run") may bring to mind a picture of an ailing Albarn, last night's performance revealed that the singer had lost none of his insouciance. He ambled on stage in a pair of slacks so worn and baggy they could have been Giant Haystacks' cast-offs and dragging his feet like a recalcitrant schoolboy.

Blur opened the show with their heartfelt single "Tender" featuring gospel vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir, with Alex James plucking at a double-bass. The upturned slant of Albarn's eyebrows expressed almost as much as the lyrics while his voice, expanded and deepened over the past few years, infused every note with winsome melancholy.

In contrast, "Bugman" was an earthquake of cruelly distorted guitars, sweeping soundscapes and guttural growling from Albarn that seemed to be unleashing a whole career's worth of pent-up frustration. He twitched, staggered and skipped around the stage, schizophrenically switching from disconsolate to unassailably victorious and adjusting his voice accordingly.

If anyone was ailing, it was bassist Alex James. He passed the time gazing around the auditorium with a fag hanging out of his mouth as if admiring a new lick of paint, seemingly impervious to Albarn's maniacal spasms.

Having trawled exhaustively through their new material, a generous parting gesture saw Blur treating us to "Song 2", a riotous anthem that left Parklife a distant memory. They may have lost the battle of the bands back in '95 but, in terms of creativity, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness, Blur have won hands down.

Fiona Sturges