Perhaps it was an hallucination, but as the youthful crowd fidgeted in their seats waiting for the Gorillaz to hit the stage for the Denver leg of their Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour 2010, there was an unmistakable “Are we there yet?”
Being one of the few graybeard/no-hairs in the crowd, I’ll admit I felt just a little old. But contrary to popular belief, aging has some definite benefits. Your joints pop and creak and make all kinds of really cool noises.
You seem to hear less of the unkind things that people say about you – come to think of it, you hear less of everything.
And, you get to play hide-and-seek with your hair.
The best thing though? Live long enough and you can be the only person to have seen both the Monkees and the Gorillaz in concert. Well – there may be a few of us.
Although most of the crowd hadn’t been born when the Monkees were hanging around, both the young and the experienced fans could agree on one thing – the Gorillaz concert was definitely worth the wait.
For a time, there was a better chance of winning the Powerball than seeing the Gorillaz play live. Originally a musical project created in 1998 by British musician Damon Albarn and British cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, the endeavor consisted of the Gorillaz music itself and a far-reaching fictional universe depicting a “virtual band” of comic book characters. The music is a collaboration between various musicians, Albarn being the only permanent musical contributor.
The original avatars, 2D (lead vocalist, keyboard), Murdoc Niccals (bass guitar), Noodle (guitar, keyboard, and occasional vocals) and Russel Hobbs (drums and percussion) were certainly front and center – well, rear and center – for the sold-out show.
Beginning with the very first sensory morsels spilling from the stage, it was clear that this was less a concert and more a theatrical happening. Fans were there to celebrate Halloween a week early, with the obligatory legions of fans appropriately bedecked in nautical garb, a neon-highlighted refugee from Tron, and making a guest appearance, Dumb and Dumber’s Harry and Lloyd, among many others.
Albarn might have spaced out the sunscreen, but he remembered to bring everything else for a day at the beach.
The show opened with a sweeping orchestral intro, with contributions from a tuba-enhanced full horn section (Hypnotic Brass Ensemble), a string section, four backup singers, and a couple of legendary sea-dogs – and no, it wasn’t Gilligan and the Skipper.
Mick Jones (lead guitar) and Paul Simonon (bass), the remaining original members of punk icons The Clash, ably manned their respective axes throughout the show.
There were times when the show seemed like a “who’s who” of musical diversity, as soul legend Bobby Womack, rappers De La Soul, Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown, Kano, Bashy, Roses Gabor, and Little Dragon played a game of vocal musical chairs throughout the evening.
And, oh yeah – the video cameos from Snoop Dogg and Bruce Willis didn’t hurt either.
The strings gave the second number a surreal quality as Albarn musically asked, are we the “Last Living Souls” (2005’s Demon Days), channeling Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) and David Byrne (Talking Heads).
Simonon’s bass and the pounding percussion kept up a funky techno groove throughout the show, and the fans were more than happy to obligingly dance to the paradoxically poppy “On Melancholy Hill” (2010’s Escape to Plastic Beach) and the techno-acoustic “Dare” (Demon Days).
Albarn displayed his diverse musical skills on “Tomorrow Comes Today” (2000 EP by the same name) by breaking out his trusty ocarina – that’s right, his ocarina – the happy sounds in stark contrast to Simonon’s throbbing bass and Albarn’s moody vocals.
The band lightened the mood by moving into a playful “Empire Ants” (Beach), highlighted by Albarn’s duet with Little Dragon. The red spotlight shining on Dragon’s glittery shoes conjured up visions of Dorothy longing for Kansas.
Ably backed by an animated children’s choir, Brown made the fans’ day by gunning down a ghostly “Dirty Harry” (Demon Days), setting the stage for the moody “El Manana” (Demon Days). War raged on the background screen as the dark melody unfolded, conspicuously marked by a keyboard solo that evoked images of an air raid siren and had the crowd nervously looking overhead.
Albarn took us for a figurative stroll through a Middle Eastern bazaar as he was joined onstage by Kano, Bashy, and American Syrian musicians to play the volatile “White Flag” (Beach), forcing the crowd into a frenzied surrender.
As the band eagerly hit the stage for an extended encore, Womack movingly dedicated the bluesy “Cloud of Unknowing” (Beach) to “all of the lost soldiers.” The wear and tear of the road was obvious as he addressed the mile-high “Seattle, Washington” crowd, but the fans quickly forgave him as De La Soul returned to the stage for crowd favorite “Feel Good” (Demon Days) and Kano and Bashy favored the crowd with “Clint Eastwood” (2001’s Gorillaz).
The highlight of the show was “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” (Demon Days), as Albarn’s heavenly falsetto brought an ethereal echo to the stage.
As the Gorillaz closed the show with a Broadway appropriate “Demon Days,” it was clear that they had something to prove – and prove it they did. The Gorillaz are much more than just pen and ink – and the fans can’t wait for the next chapter.