Graham Coxon, Northumbria University, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

If a perverse need for downward mobility marked out the post-success years of Graham Coxon's pop life in Blur, then the stripped minimalism of his live show and the claustrophobic ambience of this one-time lecture theatre would seem to find the guitarist-turned-front-man achieving his goal.

If a perverse need for downward mobility marked out the post-success years of Graham Coxon's pop life in Blur, then the stripped minimalism of his live show and the claustrophobic ambience of this one-time lecture theatre would seem to find the guitarist-turned-front-man achieving his goal.

A clash between Coxon and Blur's singer, Damon Albarn, lay at the heart of his decision to leave the band. Albarn, the pretty-boy pop star, luxuriated in the limelight, while Coxon squirmed, with the duo seemingly locked in a struggle to take the steering wheel of the Blur juggernaut.

Certainly, Coxon's initial extracurricular releases betrayed such artily lo-fi tendencies that it was easy to picture him as the serious creative, while Albarn's comic-book pop antics in Gorillaz only confirmed that he was happy to continue playing the commercial card. And then, just as the Coxon-Albarn split seemed clear cut, they turned the entire débâcle on its head. Last year, Albarn delivered an album so art-house lo-fi that it made Coxon's efforts sound polished to within an inch of being The Darkness.

That about-turn is now followed by Coxon's Happiness in Magazines, an album of the kind of Blur-esque pop that seemed lost for ever. Indeed, as Coxon embarks on the latest stage of his post-Blur career, it now seems that the battleground was less about Blur's heart than its art. For Coxon, at least, that art didn't include repeat plays of "Parklife" and stadium gigs. Indeed, that level of success is what Coxon uses to define himself against now. Everything from the back-to-basics tour of smaller venues to his between-song mumbling seems to scream anti-star.

The live show only underlines that fact, as the five-piece band storm through a set that fires on the energy of punk rock, tips a nod in the direction of emo but largely presents a platform for Coxon's undervalued guitar virtuosity - and his studied sullen sneer. So, "People of the Earth" rocks like Black Sabbath if they'd had The Fall's Mark E Smith at the helm instead of Ozzy Osbourne, and "Freakin' Out" is The Only Ones as covered by Mission of Burma. The cover of the latter's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" (more recently a hit for Moby) serves to underscore the point of reference.

Sadly, however, despite the band's best headbanging, rocking-out intentions, it's the B-word that springs to mind most often. "Spectacular", "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" and "Bottom Bunk", for example, could have been mainlined from Coxon's previous band. As could about 80 per cent of the songs played tonight, despite the punk posturing and mumbled jibes about "Northern wit".

So, rather than igniting the post-Blur Coxon cannon, his instantly recognisable songwriting style only turns heads back to the past, raising one last question - was Albarn just Coxon's pretty boy singing puppet? Certainly Blur's recent Bowie-fixated output would suggest that Coxon was more important to the group than Albarn's ego would ever admit.

Touring UK and Ireland to 11 June

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