Rough Trade NYC
Gorillaz are a high-concept act: a “virtual band” with electronic-based music masterminded by Blur cofounder Damon Albarn and cartoon characters conceived by his former flatmate Jamie Hewlett. The model has allowed Albarn to enlist a rock and roll fantasy camp’s worth of collaborators, ranging from soul pioneers Ike Turner and Bobby Womack to members of The Clash and rappers ranging from De La Soul to Snoop Dogg and D12. They’re also, despite Albarn’s uncanny ability to mesh pop melodies with esoteric music, one of the most unlikely multiplatinum global acts in history, let alone one with a 17-year-long-and-counting career.
Gorillaz concerts usually feature multiple guest performers and a giant backdrop featuring elaborate graphics and animation. So in the middle of a week that features an ADD overload of Gorillaz activity, including a complicated app, an “augmented reality pop-up house,” an appearance on Colbert and the Friday release of “Humanz,” their fifth and latest album, how exactly the group was going to play a small-club show — which this set in the 300-capacity venue attached to New York’s coolest record store amounted to — was something of a mystery.
The question had certainly crossed Albarn’s mind as well. Before the group’s set began, he addressed the beyond-capacity crowd: “Usually we have guests and this incredible live show stroke audio-visual thing going on — but tonight unfortunately we’ve got a black cloth,” he said, gesturing to the curtain behind him. “So there will be moments where there will be disembodied [pre-recorded] voices, but we will be playing everything live and we do have a few of the amazing guests from this record,” as well as six backing singers who had to perform in the balcony because there wasn’t sufficient room onstage. “So there are parts of this that are the real thing, and parts that aren’t, just like in your life,” he said.
They then performed into the entire new album (we think?), which only fans who’d delved deeply into the above shenanigans and the (ahem) music-business cognoscenti in the audience had heard.
The guy’s nothing if not ambitious.
While playing a load of new material to an audience generally unfamiliar with it is a risky proposition, it was a safe bet given Albarn’s rabid fanbase and the die-hard crowd, which had trekked through one of the most miserably rainy nights in recent memory to this giant record store near the Williamsburg waterfront. “Humanz” has large dollops of hip-hop — Albarn says he recruited several current rappers in an effort to impress his 17-year-old daughter (take it from the voice of experience, bruv, she still doesn’t think you’re cool) — but it translates unexpectedly well to this live band. Albarn was backed by a tight unit featuring guitar, bass, two keyboards, two drummers and a large and very heavy-looking church bell next to the singers in the balcony. We didn’t get album guests Vince Staples, Grace Jones, Mavis Staples, or Danny Brown, but we did get Posdnuos of De La Soul and singers Peven Everett, Jamie Principle and Kali Uchis. Throughout the set the eternally tousled Albarn was smiling, laughing, pumping his fists, exhorting the crowd, dousing them with water, taking a big hit from someone’s joint, playing keyboards and a malfunctioning keytar, yelling off-mic and clearly having the time of his life. After the rousing album closer, “We Got the Power” — during which the church bell was finally deployed — the group left the stage.
The encore featured two tracks from 2005’s “Demon Days” — “Last Living Souls” and “Kids With Guns” — before Albarn asked the crowd for requests and got largely unintelligible replies. Finally, he brought a young man onstage — who, in all honesty, bore a striking resemblance to the Gorillaz cartoon guitarist Noodle; he even donned a pair of red heart-shaped sunglasses, like the character on the cover of “Humanz.” He was apparently going to rap (or something) but didn’t. Instead, Albarn fired up his melodica, launched into the group’s 2001 hit “Clint Eastwood” to the rousing approval of the crowd, and finished off the set. (See some fan-generated videos of the show here.)
Of course, all of this was simply a fun one-off in preparation for the group’s real tour, which launches in June in England with the group’s Demon Dayz festival before moving on to North America through October. If Albarn enjoys that anywhere near as much as he seemed to enjoy Tuesday night’s show, it will be a fun tour.