The first thing that hits us as we arrive, only a little late, at level 5 of the HKCEC is the sound: far better than that we’ve become accustomed to after slogging to atmos-draining arenas at AsiaWorld or KITEC whenever a ‘name’ band visits Hong Kong, and perfectly attuned to Blur’s rippling melodies, jagged guitar-work and solid percussion (turning funky later).
The second thing is that Alex James is no longer cool. It’s not the sight of a stocky 40-something in shorts (we all do it: this is summer in Hong Kong, even the pale-legged lads from Burnage might go there) but the colour of the offending items – an unflattering school uniform grey – meaning that when the bassist sits down for a tab halfway through the set he has the look of a Grange Hill Gulliver squatting behind some unexpectedly public bike sheds. A cheap shot at someone who (recently released records suggest) seduced at least one of every British male’s girlfriend, mum and/or sister between 1991-1997? Undoubtedly.
Anyway, we’re here for the tunes. And for the dancing. A grinning Dave Rowntree on drums – hairless and fancy-free – knows that. And while Damon Albarn’s dead-eyed ballads and infamous perfectionist tetchiness prevent the gig from descending into school disco territory, there’s still plenty of incentive to bounce, gurn and holler as workout classics like Song 2 and Girls and Boys are interspersed with bittersweet treats from new album The Magic Whip; sing-alongs like Tender and Beetlebum, and the occasional in-betweener like Badhead, a song which has the ability to pinprick the eyes with sentimental tears (‘Today/I get up around 2/With nothing to do…’) as well as eliciting involuntary swaying and a sort of rhapsodic eyebrow dance (I can only speak for myself here) as Graham Coxon undertakes some tightrope guitar phrasing designed to show off his more delicate side (yes, we sigh, like us he’s not so far removed from his shy teenage self – later refusing to make eye contact with the audience as he sings, and they bounce in adoration, to the chugging Coffee and TV).
There is more. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the best gig I’ve seen since coming to Hong Kong. Otherwise we wouldn’t be wondering if our tins of Tsing Tao Draft might have been spiked by the Happy Mondays ahead of their visit this week. There are fantastic backing singers. There is a choreographed stage invasion followed by the inevitable cry of ‘No selfies’ from a band made up of men of a certain age. There is hearing someone you admire as a workaholic artist and intrepid traveller singing about catching a ‘slow boat to Lantau’, which is pretty much what you’re doing after the gig.
I’ve seen Blur in Hong Kong before – in 2013 – the Stone Roses in 2012 and Elbow back in 2011. Great rollicking experiences, but all at AsiaWorld or KITEC. It would be nice to think that the time Blur spent in Hong Kong recording The Magic Whip steered them towards performing in historic Wan Chai this time round. More likely it was a management decision, but there’s no doubting that beside the harbour, on a slice of reclaimed land, they successfully blended their atmospheric take on modern Hong Kong with the best of British (irony, humour, lager). The largely youthful, local crowd, leaving sweaty and sated, seemed to appreciate their visitors’ attempts to maintain this potentially delicate balance with such reckless verve and energy. F*cking great.