When Gorillaz first emerged from the sketch books at the turn of the millennium – an entirely new, entirely modern proposition like little that had come before, their entire focus was on collaboration. Collaboration between illustrator Jamie Hewlett and musician Damon Albarn, whose audio-visual creation was equally reliant on both, and collaboration between Albarn and a series of vocalists – a trait that would become increasingly central to Gorillaz records to this day (this year’s ‘Humanz’ features only one track without a guest).
Tonight’s end of tour stop off at the O2 Arena (their second night in a row at the 20,000 capacity venue) ostensibly also carries the same ethos with it, too. Over the course of two hours, we get a conveyor belt of nearly 20 guests dropping through; none are introduced by name, they just fluidly enter, do their thing, and then leave (or, in the case of Shaun Ryder, bumble in, swear a bit, and then wander round staring at the floor). The whole effect, you assume, is to promote the idea of Gorillaz as an ensemble cast: no stars, no egos, just a travelling circus of artists putting together a sensory spectacular.
It would work, too, were it not for the lynchpin at the centre of it all that overshadows almost everyone at every turn.
If Damon Albarn spent the early days of Gorillaz pulling the strings from the, if not background, then mid-ground at least, now the polymath seems to have embraced his role of frontman and puppet master to the full. Front and centre at the mic, he bounds around the stage, gesticulating to the sky, spasmodically leaping into the air and – during ‘Kids With Guns’ – descends into the arms of the crowd for an entire five minutes. The set itself begins with a four song intro sung entirely by the Blur man, and in the urban melancholia of ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ you could basically be listening to one of ‘13”s more downbeat cuts, with a bit of added melodica.
Darting between positions on stage like a scientist tending to his potions, Albarn’s behind an acoustic, soothingly crooning ‘Melancholy Hill’ at one moment and behind a piano bashing out the rinky-dink circus intro to ‘Sweepstakes’ the next. On ‘Charger’ he absolutely blows The Selecter’s Pauline Black out the water, jumping and jerking across the chorus like he’s been plugged into the mains. On ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’ he stands at the front, arms casually folded, surveying his kingdom as if playing to an arena full of people is the most normal thing in the world – which, of course, for Damon it is.
It takes Vince Staples, who bursts out for ‘Ascension’, to really give the singer a run for his money. A tightly coiled presence that blows the energy up a gear, he shoots out the traps and then tips off the edge of the stage on the last beat – an effortlessly cool full body mic drop that leaves Peven Everett’s turn on ‘Strobelight’ with too much to live up to. Zebra Katz and Jamie Principle – the former adorned with a silver and black beaded face stocking, the latter looking like Prince reincarnated as a white trenchcoat-wearing space bandit – are an intriguingly unnerving presence, but ‘Sex Money Party’ remains a bit shit as a song, whereas tour support Little Simz’ ‘Garage Palace’ is a winner – all harshly spat verses and high octane aggression.
There’s so much going on on the stage itself, that for much of the show you
half forget their cartoon alter-egos cavorting through the apocalyptic wastelands on the screens behind. And that’s none more apparent than when the band bring out a final half hour of big hitters that throw everything at the wall and watch it almost uniformly stick.
‘Style’ finds the smiling face of the late Bobby Womack (vocalist on the track) beaming down from a projection above the stage, while ‘Feel Good Inc.’ sees De La Soul bound on stage to deliver the track’s irrepressible opening cackle. ‘We Got The Power’, meanwhile, is a concise masterclass in the Gorillaz ethos: Savages’ singer Jehnny Beth and Little Simz take centre stage while, to no fanfare, Noel Gallagher and Graham Coxon pop on to lend some fretwork. It’s a headline-grabbing combination of people (two of the people Damon’s had most notable fall outs with in his career, indeed) that could easily overshadow the rest of the stage, but they don’t let it. Instead Graham wrestles with his guitar in the background, Noel falls into an endearingly ‘uncle at a wedding’ two step choreography with Gorillaz’ own axeman and Damon runs around the stage, conducting the whole affair.
They end with an enormous singalong of ‘Clint Eastwood’ and the final strains of ‘Demon Days’, as phone flashlights twinkle across the arena. “Make some noise for the greatest entertainer in the world,” announced De La Soul’s Maseo earlier in the night, with his arm around Albarn. It’s a lofty claim, but he’s probably not too far off.