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Blur live at the Palais Royale, Toronto
6 April 1999
Reviewed by Toronto Sun

It was the very thing Blur want to distance themselves from.
    A concert with screaming fans, raised arms, pogo-dancing, cries of "Woo-hoo!"
    And if last night's fine gig at the Palais Royale was a typical night for Blur these days, the British pop group should feel bittersweet about quitting the road -- which they've decided to do with the release of their sixth album, 13.
    Granted, there would have been a sense of occasion even if singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree had tanked on stage.
    It was just one of a handful of shows Blur are doing in support of 13's recent release.
    Ticket sales were kept to a minimum. Instead of jamming several thousand fans into a mid-sized venue, as promoters could have easily done, the rather classy lakeside hall was filled just shy of its 800-person capacity -- a comfortable way to see a rock show.
    And, as if to test for a fan reaction to the uncompromising musical departure on 13, Blur played the album from start to finish before indulging punters with obvious favourites from the past.
    The band had their work cut out for them: The weird pacing and murky melodies of 13 don't exactly lend themselves to the kind of "knees-up" performances Blur are known for.
    Likewise, the band only had one extra musician on-stage, she was sneakily hidden behind James' bass amp to lay down the songs' integral keyboard drones.
    Blur relied on sheer musical schizophrenia to make it all work. Needless to say, it wasn't always a smooth ride.
    Stripped of its gospel choir -- the band recruited the Boys' Choir Of Harlem for a recent New York show but went it alone here -- the opening song Tender took on a chugging, slouching feel that was as equally effective and nearly as infectious as its album counterpart.
    Albarn spent much of the show moodily strumming an acoustic guitar but he cut loose on fuzzed-up tearaways Bugman, Swamp Song and B.L.U.R.E.M.I., as if to Remind everyone what a terrific frontman he can be.
    James mugged, cigarette dangling and his jeans inching dangerously toward "plumber's butt" territory.
    But it was uber-nerd Coxon who, quite inexplicably, had female hearts a-flutter with his shaky vocal turn on Coffee & TV.
    Some experiments worked -- the pulsating, one-word opus Battle. Some didn't P the sludgy 1992.
    But none of that seemed to matter after set-closer No Distance Left To Run, an aching ballad worthy of Neil Young, or Spiritualized, which sounded heart-wrenching in the warm, romantic space of the Palais.
    The encore hits -- '97's Beetlebum, '91's boppy There's No Other Way, '93's Popscene, and ubiquitous "Woo-hoo!" anthem Song 2 -- did fall neatly under the "throw the fans a bone" heading. But the night was already Blur's.

Kieran Grant

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