Live Review Gorillaz, O2 Arena, London 11th August 2021

Celebratory and instinctively inclusive, no band could have done it better.

It’s probably just the luck of the calendar draw that made Gorillaz the first headliners at the O2 Arena in 18 months, but it’s hard to imagine any band more appropriate for the task.

An audio-visual smorgasbord for the senses, not only is Damon Albarn’s ever-morphing project in possession of the kind of colourful, innately excitable spirit that’s perfect for such a momentous occasion, they’re also wonderfully inclusive without even trying. Tonight’s heaving crowd (and truly, never has a room looked so full as this after the long, lonely lockdowns) is notably diverse in age, gender, race and basically everything else; on stage, Gorillaz’s constantly cycling array of star guests range from goth god Robert Smith to Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, each new face received with rapturous cheers from the throng down front. Gorillaz’s party is for everyone, and it’s an energy that radiates through every moment of tonight’s two hour set: after a period of intense separation, the spirit of togetherness is an emotional one.

From the opening moments, cartoon speech bubbles echoing ‘Hello’ across the screen to welcome the world back into its arms, the entire production is flawless. Damon, in a pink Fred Perry jacket and shades, spends an opening ‘M1A1’ geeing the crowd up to release a year’s worth of pent-up energy, before Smith strolls on for a following ‘Strange Timez’, as casual as you like.

If his turn thrills by merit of his irrefutably legendary status, then it’s hip hop’s younger stars who really steal the show. Little Simz first comes out for ‘Garage Palace’, spitting bars with the tightness of a true superstar in the game, before returning in the encore to update oldie ‘Clint Eastwood’ with her own new (better?) verse. Jelani Blackman arrives to debut new track ‘Meanwhile’, while Jamaica-born, London-based Alicaì Harley brings an irrepressible dancehall spirit to second newie ‘De Ja Vu’ - a paean to Notting Hill Carnival replete with a parade of flags of the world that turn the venue into its own festival.

Indeed, there’s a festival spirit to the whole of tonight. Though Damon is Gorillaz’s unmistakable lynchpin, he clearly revels in often being more of a ringleader than a focus-puller, stepping back to give his guests their moment in the spotlight. It’s hard to think of anyone else who’s as much of a genuine musical chameleon or sponge as he; absorbing and reflecting the styles of his collaborators, tonight’s set veers seamlessly from the bovver boy rowdiness of ‘Momentary Bliss’ (Slaves are present tonight, slowthai sadly absent) to retro soul on ‘The Lost Chord’, augmented by ‘70s singer Leee John.

When he’s left to his own devices, meanwhile, Damon at 53 is the polar opposite to the cliche of the older rock star. From the twinkling ‘On Melancholy Hill’, to ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’ - part antsy swagger, part goosebump-inducing vocal - to a closing, rapturous ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’, there’s so much inquisitiveness, creativity and excitement across Gorillaz’ canon, you can’t help but be sucked into the energy. Damon loves music, and he wants you to love it too.

As he’s rejoined by all his pals for a final closing ‘Demon Dayz’, flags waving, the night ends in unshowy fashion, the stage-full of musicians casually embracing and sauntering off. It’s not a traditional whistles and bangs end to an arena show, but it kind of suits them: for all the artifice of their cartoon avatars, really Gorillaz are about embracing humanity in all its possibilities. Tonight, they bring together a corner of it in style.

Gorillaz will play Flow, which takes place 12th August - 14th August 2022. DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now.

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