Washed out, gone to seed and clear as mud

Glastonbury Festival; BLUR

JUST BEFORE Blur came on stage on Saturday night, some wag in the audience hoisted an oversized pair of comedy Y-fronts on a stick. In a sea of inflatable hands and jesters hats, this doesn't qualify as unusual. But after a while, those underpants came to feel worryingly like a critical appraisal.

At the peak of their powers, Blur could bring atmosphere to the moon. At last year's V97 festival, or at their own Mile End show in 1995, their vivacity was irresistible. There has never been anything very subtle about their live shows, but they have always managed to locate the intimate little nooks and crannies in the dubious phenomenon of the stadium gig. Not at Glastonbury, though. From the moment the band appeared, they seemed less interested in moving the audience than in removing themselves from the stage as quickly as possible.

One of the defining characteristics of Damon Albarn's stage persona is his matey warmth, though even that was in short supply.

"Nice turn out," he observed, surveying the crowd which stretched as far as the fields would allow. Later, he dedicated "End of a Century" to the daytime television host Judy Finnegan; the most stimulating his conversation got was when he asked us if we had seen the TV series Stella Street. No one was holding their breath waiting for a Wildean epigram, but you had to concede that those enormous Y-fronts possibly had rather more charisma than he did. The band's playing wasn't much sparkier than Albarn's banter. They opened with a version of "Girls and Boys" that was muddier than the ground that you had spent the weekend trudging through. "On Your Own" followed, providing one of those moments when everyone in the audience turns to their neighbour with that expression which says: "Is it me, or is this out of tune?"

Pleasingly crunchy guitar noises and space invader bleeps introduced the song but then it dissolved into discordant chaos which even the term "experimental" couldn't excuse. Each member of the band seemed to be relating to his colleagues via satellite link-up, putting them a few seconds behind or ahead of each other.

There were some songs which even perverse arrangements couldn't destroy. "Popscene" was polished off with cruel intensity, the brass section swooping over Graham Coxon's scratchy guitar line with incongruous grandeur. There was a sour-sweet "Beetlebum" and a lush, protracted "For Tomorrow" which gave the brass section another chance to take us to those parts which Blur can't reach on their own. A new song, written for the animated series South Park, was an unexpected pleasure, a bluesy ramble featuring the refrain "I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones". But it was a mistake to resurrect the banal early song "Slow Down", which reminded us of the days when all Blur wanted was to be Ride, especially on an evening when they came close to realising that ambition.

It was, hopefully for one night only, Blur on autopilot - rent-a-headliners available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, festivals and, on this evidence, funerals too.

Ryan Gilbey

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