The silly giddy circus music plays, like it always did, and here we go again.
Damon Albarn tilts his head back and examines the ceiling. For ages. Perhaps he’s collecting his thoughts as prodigal homecomer Graham Coxon slowly strums out the intro to “She’s So High”, Blur’s debut single.
Perhaps he’s contemplating the truth that, much as he may relish his ability to branch out into comic books, Chinese opera and African music, and much as Coxon might wish to be remembered for seven solo albums, this thing is what people will always want from them both, and this thing is what binds them together.
Before we continue, let’s get one thing straight: anyone who bought into the simple either/or dichotomy of Blur versus Oasis is an imbecile.
The correct answer was always “none of the above”. However, on the basis that a band with a brain is preferable to one without, Blur were the lesser of two evils.
Tonight, back in their alma mater, the place where it all began 20 years ago (“I’m having one of those weird spatial moments,” Albarn, left, says, surveying the student union hall, “I remember this place being huge ...”), they show that they’re so much more than that. I’ve seen countless Blur gigs over the years, and I’d be lying if I didn’t report this is the best I’ve ever witnessed.
It must be said that the four members of Blur are, like Duran Duran, looking disgustingly good for their advancing years, exuding an enviably healthy glow. Albarn can still get away with a Fred Perry, and the hunched, Caine-like Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree have barely changed during the hiatus. Alex James, in particular, must have been through quite some fitness regime to get into those arse-hugging jeans, having recently started to resemble an actual farmer.
They muster impressive resources of energy for this two-hour marathon, covering nearly all the hits as well as selected album tracks and fan faves ("Tracy Jacks", "Trimm Trabb", "Oily Water"), a set so comprehensive it almost backfires and I start bitching about what they don't play (the Numanesque "Trouble in the Message Centre" topping the list), instead of enjoying the ones they do.
It virtually amounts to showing off: we wrote this one, and this one, and this one. "Girls and Boys", for instance, is thrown in super-early (second song), its brilliance – the callous economy of that opening couplet, "Street's like a jungle/So call the police" – undiminished by familiarity. Albarn sings with a renewed aggression and precision, as though he's just remembered, after all these years, that the words mean something. The break from the tour treadmill doubtless helped.
The crowd ranges from freshers, who only know of Blur via I Love the 90s clip shows and nostalgic NME Classics mags, to the band's contemporaries: looking around, there are almost enough familiar faces to make a quorum of the music biz kickabouts in which Damon and I took part in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons during the Britpop days.
"You should probably pace yourselves," Damon advises, drenching the front rows in Evian, "because there's a long way to go." Wise words on a night so hot that sweat condenses on the ceiling and, if you stand in the wrong place, drips into your pint. During the fast section of "Sunday Sunday", when Damon runs on the spot and everyone pogos, you hope there are paramedics on standby (for him or for us). Pleasingly, unlike REM and Radiohead, Blur don't try to write their cheesiest hits out of history, meaning we do get "Parklife", and "Country House", the apex of their Chas & Dave, knees-up-muvver-braahn nonsense.
It's a common observation, but Blur are best when they slow it down, instead of chasing the zeitgeist at a million miles an hour. "Badhead" is an early reminder, and as the show approaches its finale, the beautiful ballads start appearing: "End of the Century", "The Universal", "Out of Time", my personal favourite "To the End (Jusqu'à la Fin)", and "This Is a Low", a song inspired by the spookiness of late-night shipping reports (not something you can imagine either Gallagher brother coming up with). They encore with "For Tomorrow", the song where it all changed, where Blur revealed themselves as a band with poetry in their souls and life in their minds.
It's the climax of a show so good, in fact, that I can't imagine how the open-air extravaganzas for which it is a warm-up can match it. But it really, really, really could happen ....
If you build it, they will come. That's the theory behind the ascent of The Noisettes, a band whose recent fame hasn't settled the matter of how to pronounce their punning name. (I favour the may-contain-nuts French option.) The London trio of Shingai Shoniwa, Dan Smith and Jamie Morrison began at the starting-square of an indie band, but threw a double six to skip the drudgery of the toilet circuit, landing straight on the A-list (by way of a Mazda advert), meaning big enough budgets for a string section.
It's mainly down to maddeningly catchy single "Don't Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go Baby Go)", but whether they'll maintain it depends greatly on the undoubted charisma of singer and (occasional bassist) Shoniwa, whose hairstyle, resembling a piratical tricorn hat, suggests panto season's come early; whose versatile voice ranges from a Winehouse-like jazz chanteuse croon to full-on house diva; and whose theatrical antics – scaling a rope ladder, singing from the balcony, and twisting her spine into limbo shapes – draw upon her background doing burlesque routines for Lost Vagueness.
The Noisettes' praline-like pop-soul goodness might pall if you eat too many, but right now they're worth a whirl.