21st Century Appearances: 2003 Main Stage Headliner
The Defining Festival Moment: Blur’s set was a real heartbreaker, and it ended in suitably dramatic fashion, with a weary and defeated Albarn uncorking harrowing and wispish rendition of “This Is A Low”.
When Blur strolled on stage in 2003 one thing was abundantly clear: this was a band who’d reached the end of their teather. Damon was uncharactistically understated, he appeared worn down, drained and old. But while that may appear to be a negative on the surface, it gave Blur’s 2003 set an incredible emotive edge and an cathartic atmosphere that no band before or since has managed to match (no not even Arcade Fire and Radiohead).
Blur are bona fide Reading legends. It helps to get that out of the way. In the 1990s they were as much the Reading house band as they were Glastonbury’s, as they rocked the festival with three blistering performances, including one main stage slot in 1991 between De La Soul and Teenage Fan Club.
By the turn of the Millennium the band would be in disarray, Graham Coxon would quit the band between Blur’s 1999 and 2003 headline slots, and Blur would evolve from wild pop braggadocio to considered artistic and abstract experimentation. Damon would expand his palette to include both dance and world music, and while Blur would retreat from mainstream, releasing two incredibly daring LPs: 13 and Think Tank.
Unsurprisingly, it was those two albums that set the tone for Blur’s final headline stand at Reading and Leeds. “Tender” felt like a dying plea, as if Albarn were calling out to the crowd to give him the strength to continue, and it felt ghostly, as the absence of Graham Coxon’s fragile vocal left a gapping hole at the track’s heart. “Timmy Trabb” provided the undoubted mid set highlight as Damon unleashed he’s banshee wail before the track’s gloriously downbeat rhythm resumed and built as Albarn softly cooed “I Sleep Alone” to one final blood curdling scream, creating one of the great Reading moments.
The heavy hand of history appeared to be perched on Damon Albarn’s shoulder the whole night, shoving him off stage during “Beetlebum” and adding an unbelievable level of resonance to classic anthems “Out Of Time”, “End Of A Century”, “To The End”, “The Universal” and “This Is A Low”. The set was not a barrel of laughs, despite Phil Daniels and “Boys And Girls’” best efforts, but it was one of the most atmospheric, historic and heartbreaking in Reading Festival History. David Hayter