What would Murdoc make of it? Previously, Gorillaz live performances have seen the “real” musicians play anonymously behind a curtain. But not tonight. If anything, tonight’s show abandons the notion of Gorillaz as a “virtual band” altogether. It seems more about establishing Damon Albarn’s overdue re-emergence as a front man, after spending close to a decade in the background on a number of collaborative projects, from Mali Music to The Good, The Bad And The Queen and Gorillaz.
It’s tempting to ask what’s prompted this, as he steps out from behind his keyboard to sing the second song of the night, “Last Living Soul” from the Demon Days album.
Certainly, it’s easy enough to continue to play behind a curtain when the band is, broadly, second-tier musicians. It’s clearly harder, though, when your touring band include Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, here sharing the stage for the first time together since Jones left The Clash in 1983. You could argue that the simple fact of their presence here means Damon is almost forced to blow his cover.
But there is, crucially, also the small matter of last year’s Blur tour to take into account. Damon’s enthusiasm at both those Hyde Park dates last July was palpable; and it seems likely those shows rekindled his interest in live performance. Which is certainly what we get tonight.
Critically, this show establishes Gorillaz as a highly credible live proposition. And, sure, this is in no small part down to Jones and Simonon’s involvement; it’s thrilling to see them share backing vocals a thunderous “O Green World”, or watch Simonon prowl the stage with his bass slung low. That the two men are wearing sailor’s hats – in a nod to the Plastic Beach album’s concept – fortunately doesn’t diminish their cool. And, before they wheel out the special guest vocalists, the band make a persuasive case in their own right. “Melancholy Hill” is beautiful; if, like me, you favour Damon’s more reflective, downtempo Blur songs, this is up there with “Out Of Time” or “Strange News From Another Star”.
As to the special guests, we get a video of Snoop early on, for “Welcome To The Plastic Beach”, but it’s not until the fifth song that Mos Def and Bobby Womack arrive for a sleek “Stylo”, accompanied by a huge grin from Damon. From then on, the turnover of vocalists is pretty regular, from De La Soul leaping round the stage for “Feel Good Inc” to a pleasingly dissolute Shaun Ryder on a thumping, adrenalised “Dare”. Perhaps the best guest slot, though, goes to Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, who duets with Damon on a beautiful version of “To Binge”.
With Damon’s inner performer in full flight, it’s perhaps no surprise to see the cartoon façade relegated to video screens. Jamie Hewlett’s images cut from scratchy line drawings reminiscent of his early Tank Girl work to richly detailed, 3D cartoons or video cut-ups. It’s great, but perhaps it feels too overwhelming. During “White Flag”, I count 19 people on stage – the regular band plus string section, the Syrian National Orchestra and grime artists Bashy and Kano. It kind of makes you stop and acknowledge what Damon’s achieved here; I can’t think of any other artist so willing to pull together so many apparently diverse musical outlooks and not make a pig’s ear out of it.
Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach
Last Living Souls
O Green World
On Melancholy Hill
Kids With Guns
Stylo (feat Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
Empire Ants (feat Little Dragon)
Dirty Harry (feat Bootie Brown)
White Flag (feat Bashy And Kano and The Syrian National Orchestra)
Superfast Jellyfish (feat De La Soul and Gruff Rhys)
Dare (Feat Rosie Wilson and Shaun Ryder)
Cloud Of Unknowing (feat Bobby Womack)
Sweepstakes (feat Mos Def)
To Binge (feat Little Dragon)
Feel Good (feat De La Soul)