Latest show a Blur compared to other unforgettable outings


July 16, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


While other bands made a bigger impact in the States (notably archrivals Oasis), Blur emerged as the most important British group of the alternative era because of the strength of its tunes: indelible songs jointly powered by the droll observations of vocalist Damon Albarn and the potent melodies of guitarist Graham Coxon.

But with Coxon having split from the group after protracted feuding with Albarn, it was half a band that returned to Chicago after a long absence on Monday, and the addition of four extra members (two backing vocalists, a percussionist and a keyboardist) didn't come close to filling the gap.

An 80-minute set at the Congress Theatre found the restructured Blur alternating songs from its impressive back catalog--including tunes from its classics "Modern Life Is Rubbish" (1993), "Parklife" (1994) and "Blur" (1997)--with material from its uneven recent effort "Think Tank."

It made for an uneasy mix. The Beatlesesque ditty "Beetlebum" stood as cheekier Brit-pop than anything Ray Davies or Paul Weller penned in their primes. As Albarn screamed "I love heavy metal!" and led the crowd in the familiar "whoo-hoo!" chants, "Song 2" provided a cathartic explosion of gleefully dumb energy.

"Boys and Girls" remains one of the best rock songs ever written about hedonistic sex, as well as a witty cautionary tale (watch out for those "nasty blisters"). "For Tomorrow" was, as always, an emotional epic, while "Tender" became a jubilant gospel celebration.

But the more experimental, groove-oriented material from "Think Tank"--including non-songs such as "Out of Time," "Brothers and Sisters," "Caravan" and the Fatboy Slim-produced "Crazy Beat"--sounded as flat onstage as it does on record.

As side projects, Albarn's cartoon trip-hoppers Gorillaz and his worldbeat-meets-techno solo effort "Mali Music" were entertaining detours into hip background electronica. But longtime fans expect more from Blur: We want the emotional wallop, the viciously funny sarcasm and the unforgettable melodies of the band at its best.

On too much of the new material, Albarn tries to substitute ambience and groove for those more elusive qualities. And he comes up short.

The generally rollicking rhythm section of drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James was wasted through much of the set, and new guitarist Simon Tong, a veteran of the Verve, was an unremarkable substitute for Coxon. The former guitarist may have been an understated presence onstage, but his musical contributions were enormous. Tong was barely there at all, visually or musically.

Once a nonstop frenzy of action and a fount of witty asides, the now 35-year-old Albarn seemed more subdued than usual as well, though this may have been the fault of the venue. "There's a very strange vibe in this place, but I like it," Albarn said.

If the singer was telling the truth, he was probably the only one in attendance who felt so kindly toward the Congress.

The crumbling old theater on Milwaukee Avenue had a certain charm when it was the site of D.I.Y. punk and underground metal shows. But in recent months, the venue has become an outlet for the House of Blues (which promoted the half-empty Blur show at $33 a ticket) and Clear Channel Entertainment.

The two companies are eager to establish a mid-sized theater to compete with rival promoters Jam Productions, which has a virtual lock on the Riviera, the Vic, the Aragon Ballroom and (until recently) the Chicago Theatre. Unfortunately, the Congress is the worst-sounding room of its size in Chicago--putting to shame even the notorious Aragon--and it would be generous to describe its condition as "a decrepit dump."

For the Congress to become a viable venue (one worthy of hosting world-class acts such as Blur), the promoters need to invest some serious cash, starting with a sound system that doesn't evoke amplified mud.