Pop-music mad scientist Damon Albarn is currently touring his ever-evolving collaborative group and multimedia extravaganza, Gorillaz, across the United States. After Gorillaz climbed around New York City like King Kong at the end of last week, they took their road-show down the Turnpike to play an incredible show in Camden, New Jersey on Sunday night, and then down I-95 to perform at George Mason University’s Patriot Center on Monday. Having previewed the 2010 Gorillaz live show at this year’s Coachella Music Festival, I was determined to catch at least one of their national tour dates. As it turns out I was fortunate enough to catch two of them.
Everyone that I talk to who hasn’t seen Gorillaz live seems to have the misconception that their concerts are fully-animated affairs, with the real band hidden behind screens. If you are reading this and are skipping your area’s Gorillaz tour date because of a similar thought, let me tell you that 2010 is the year Gorillaz have come out from behind their rather silly veil to stage an extravagant stage show that features upwards of 25 people on stage at once. The live show is a head-spinning cavalcade of guest-stars and top-notch musicians with so many moving musical parts that every inch of the stage is packed with something interesting for the eyes and the ears. With the latest Gorillaz release, a concept album entitled “Plastic Beach”, and this massive tour, Albarn has finally realized the full musical potential of the novelty Hip-Hop meets Brit-Pop group that he and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett conceived nearly a decade ago. “Escape to Plastic Beach” tour is one of the most unique entertainment events of this year or any other.
Gorillaz has always been a music collaboration project and perhaps the sheer logistical obstacle of touring with a full roster of high-profile guest-stars has been largely responsible for the band’s old “perform behind the cartoon screens” trick. With this year’s tour however, Albarn decided to swing for the fences and has put together a touring troupe chock full of so many live guest-stars that I almost can not believe he is pulling it off successfully. Coachella’s performance featured several guest stars, but the road-show has upped the already impressive ante.
Little Dragon, Bootie Brown (of Pharcyde), Bashy, Kano, Roses Gabor, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Mos Def, and Mick freakin’ Jones and Paul freakin’ Simonon of THE FREAKIN’ CLASH all appeared at both the Camden and Patriot Center shows! This in addition to Damon Albarn (no slouch himself), an awesome group of Arab-American musicians playing traditional Middle Eastern instruments, two keyboard players, a full string-section, a four person choir, one full-time and one part-time drummer, an additional guitarist (who I think was Simon Tong of The Verve), and an extra bass player! On both nights the massive band filled the stage while beautiful animations by Jamie Hewlett played on a mammoth screen behind them. There was literally more happening on-stage than your eyes could see at once.
Did I mention two members of THE CLASH were on-stage for the whole concert?!!! The Clash are my favorite band of all-time. On both nights I made sure to buy front-row-ish seats on the Mick Jones side of the stage. Several times during both shows (but more during Virginia’s) Paul Simonon came over to Mick and the two jammed out old school The Clash style. Every time they did I cheered like a little girl and nearly fainted. We even got a little Mick Jones channeling Anthony Quinn in “Zorba The Greek” dancing during the “White Flag” intro. It was spectacular!
Michael Darpino = total The Clash fan-boy geek.
Unbelievable as it is for me to type this, watching 2/4 of The Clash performing was not the only thrill Gorillaz had to offer. Each new guest appearance raised the energy level of the crowds to new heights. In New Jersey, I felt that Little Dragon p/k/a Yukimi Nagano and De La Soul had the best guest-spots. Little Dragon’s duet with Albarn on “To Binge” was the perfect sweet confection amidst the high energy controlled chaos of the set list. De La Soul were largely responsible for said chaos. How they can laugh like they do on “Feel Good Inc.” in person without exploding is insane. Albarn and De La Soul’s Dave shared an particularly awesome scream-off near the end of the Camden show.
At the Patriot Center, soul singer Roses Gabor, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and Bootie Brown took the best walk-on honors. Roses shined during her duet with a giant projected image of The Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder’s disembodied-but-singing head on “DARE”. Bootie Brown is always a blast but at the Patriot Center show I thought he really brought his A-game to out-shine most of other rapping talent on display. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble were just an incredible source of positive energy on-stage each time they came out and their sound blended perfectly with the band-at-large on Monday night.
Special mention goes out to Bobby Womack and Mos Def. Mr. Womack killed it on both nights as he sang on “Stylo”, “Demon Days”, and most impressively on “Cloud of Unknowing”. His soulful, mournful crooning on that song just melted your heart two nights in a row. At Coachella his performance was a little shaky, but in Camden and then again in Virginia he was well-rehearsed and just killed it. Mos Def was a special guest for only a few shows. I feel really fortunate that I got to see two of the three shows featuring him. Next to Damon Albarn himself, Mos Def brought the best performance of the night at both shows. Mos Def first appeared on stage during “Stylo”, rapping into a CB radio microphone. It was just cool to see him there done up in yachting gear; but on Monday night he added the very cool effect of clicking his microphone on and off while rapping to create a broken transmission effect that added to the song’s sonic weirdness. Mos Def reappeared towards the end of both sets donned in a purple cape, a hat pulled low over his head, and slowly waving a cane as he ripped through increasingly faster verses of “Sweepstakes”. On both nights Mos Def (accompanied by the band and Hypnotic Brass) owned the crowd during with this song; it was a high point of both nights.
Finally, what can I say about Damon Albarn? The man is a musical genius. His collaborative mind and global ear has assembled interesting projects for years. From Blur to Gorillaz to The Good, The Bad, The Queen he has always impressed; now with this madman’s dream of an insanely huge live Gorillaz’ tour he has outdone himself. Albarn seemed to be having the time of his life performing with so many great and varied musicians. He gave each a humble introduction before or after their guest-spots and seemed to be truly in awe of Jones and Simonon.** When he wasn’t in the spot-light as lead singer, Albarn was playing piano, waving a giant white flag, or dancing around like a fan himself. With his high energy performance and occasional wistful vocal delivery Albarn served as the perfect tour guide to his latest creation, the world of Plastic Beach.
UPDATE: Video shot by Kano while performing “Clint Eastwood” at The Patriot Center:
* Andrew Markowitz’s photos are from the 10/11/10 show at the Patriot Center. His full set can be seen here.
** Rightfully so!