Kieran Lewis reviews Gorillaz at The O2 Arena
Following a hiatus of almost seven years, Damon Albarn and his animated band propelled themselves back into the spotlight last April with the dark and explicitly politicised Humanz. Recorded in early 2016 by Albarn and a host of collaborators whose brief was to entertain – for the purpose of the album – the ludicrous prospect of a Trump presidency, the result is the soundtrack to a party on the eve of the apocalypse. Tonight, as Gorillaz return to London, the crowd at the O2 arena seems only too happy to join in the festivities.
As the only constant musical member of the band (creative partner Jamie Hewlett takes care of the cartoon visuals) Damon Albarn is more than comfortable taking the reins for the first section of the set. Gorillaz has always been a project that has relied heavily on collaborators to diversify its sound, but the frontman’s instantly-recognisable tones are the glue that holds it together. It’s nice to appreciate him on his own – albeit with occasional assistance from the six touring gospel vocalists – for the likes of ‘Rhinestone Eyes’ and ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’.
Before long, however, the arrival of 70s singer Pauline Black for new track ‘Charger’ signals the beginning of an almighty deluge of guest appearances that includes De La Soul, Gruff Rhys, Vince Staples, Mos Def, Peven Everett, D.R.A.M., and Bootie Brown. Among the most memorable collaborators of the night is Chicago native Pusha T who joins Albarn and a towering projection of fellow Chicagoan Mavis Staples for the poignant ‘Let Me Out’. The album version of this dialogue between different generations of the city’s black community censors the names of politicians, but there’s no room for subtlety now. “Obama is gone / Who is left to save us? / They say the devil’s at work and Trump is calling favours”, yells the rapper.
Another honourable mention goes to tonight’s rendition of ‘We Got the Power’. The song itself represents a glimmer of hope amid the dystopian vision of Humanz and, tonight, it is converted into a vehicle for Britpop reconciliation as well. Not only does Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth show up, Albarn’s 90s chart nemesis Noel Gallagher and Blur bandmate Graham Coxon also drop in to add to the euphoric performance.
This homecoming boasts all the ingredients that have turned Gorillaz from an ambitious but somewhat disjointed project into an enduring and successful one. The vocal arrangements are tight, the visuals are immersive, the explosion of blue light that accompanies the first note of ‘On Melancholy Hill’ is genuinely disorientating and the set encompasses myriad genres. The encore that ranges from the beautiful 2007 deep cut ‘Hong Kong’, on which a member of the touring band switches his guitar for a gu zheng, all the way to ‘Dare’, which sees ex-Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder shuffle triumphantly across the stage, is a case in point.
This is a band and, indeed, a brand almost two decades in the making and tonight’s performance emphatically underscores its lasting relevance. By far the most impressive takeaway from Gorillaz’ homecoming is the outright impossibility of placing Damon Albarn and co. in any musical category known to man or cartoon.
Featured image credit: Denholm Hewlett