LIVE REVIEW; Blur V97, Chelmsford

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The Independent Culture
"Who's from Colchester?" Damon demands, responding to the lusty ensuing cheer with a sympathetic "Never mind". Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home, especially when home is no place. Where 1995's Mile End gig was the apogee of Blur's bogus quest for Cockney credibility, the band's sold-out headlining appearance at Chelmsford two and a bit years later marks the climax of a bold attempt at embracing an authentic suburban rootlessness. And the fact that Albarn and co's symbolic journey down the A12 mirrors the historic population shift that made the county of Essex what it is today is merely the icing on the conceptual cake.

Some kind of celebration is certainly in order, Blur having confounded all those who saw their most recent, eponymously titled album as commercial suicide by registering their biggest global impact to date. The only way to fully appreciate the extent of this achievement is to imagine what others would have to do to match it. Like Morrissey making a great dub album or Oasis pulling off a successful move into free jazz, Blur forsaking insularity for internationalism was something that was never meant to happen. By a pleasing irony, their subsequent return to grace now finds them taking centre stage in just the kind of Americanised corporate leisure experience that their earlier Anglo-centric phase was conceived as a reaction against.

For anyone who does not wish every aspect of their cultural life to be controlled by Richard Branson, V97 is an intimidating spectacle. Everywhere you look on the amply stewarded country park site is a Virgin-branded leisure option. Backstage, guests and media parasites are encouraged to buy champagne as if this event was some tacky adjunct to the Henley Regatta, not pop music, the people's artform. On the other side of the great divide, a succession of chillingly mainstream main-stage support acts (Reef, Dodgy and Kula Shakur: an unholy trinity of derivative mediocrity) have lulled the crowd into a frenzy of false consciousness.

In this debased context, Blur's opening shot - the sensual Lennon/ Cobain swirl of "Beetlebum" - hits the spot like a sudden breeze in an dentist's overcrowded waiting room. Damon is in resplendently adenoidal voice, Graham looks as close to chipper as he ever gets and Alex, well, who cares about Alex? When the giant screens on either side of the stage play back that great moment in the video when the camera pulls away from the room, the town, the country and the world, it seems like the perfect visual representation of the band's rapidly broadening horizons.

Out of the music hall and into the stratosphere seems to be the order of the night. Blur follow with "Stereotype", and The Great Escape's frighteningly uncontemporary tale of wife-swapping and other imagined Seventies' happenings brings proceedings back to earth with a bump. Things continue this way throughout - up one minute with an exhilarating "Chinese Bombs" or a deliriously cheesy "Girls and Boys", down the next with a frankly unlistenable "Theme From Retro". The one truly transcendental moment comes during an uncommonly lovely "The Universal", when Damon sings "It really really really could happen" instead of the usual "`appen". Not dropping that "h" constitutes a giant leap forward.

Where the unevenness of the set as a whole should be annoying, it actually seems rather commendable. What Blur are trying to achieve here - an accommodation between their old singalong pop selves and their new dissonant swank which will make sense to thousands of people standing on a gently rolling hillside - is not something that is readily attainable. And it's good to see a band which has shown a taste for the easy option in the past making life difficult for themselves by playing all but four of Blur's 14 tracks. For all their sterling virtues, new songs such as "Death of a Party" were not built for the open air.

In fact, by the time Blur get around to breaking their vow not to do "Country House", they have done what no one thought possible - created an environment wherein playing this song is not only forgivable but necessary. Mass open-air celebrations of cultural commonality are the opposite of what British pop music is supposed to be about, and there's something very healthy about the faint sense of unease which the crowd carries out into the Essex night. Blur's achievement has been to leave them wanting more rather than less n

Ben Thompson