- 18 Aug 22
Go with me for a minute here; is Damon Albarn David Bowie's true musical heir? Marvel at how he jumps, as Bowie did in his pomp, from genre to genre, grasps the kernel of each one, and then combines it with his own Damonness to craft great records. Solo efforts about elephants, operas about 16th century Chinese monkeys and court astronomers, art rock projects with Fela Kuti’s drummer and the bassist from The Clash, a musical about Alice, the brilliant Mali Music, producing Bobby Womack, and even managing to make one of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers sound good – there should be schools named after him (I think there might be one in Bamako) and that’s before I mention Blur or Gorillaz.
Blur are another day’s work altogether, although let me quickly say that Modern Life Is Rubbish is a bit of a masterpiece and was an incredibly timely record when grunge was getting a bit much. Even when they went too far down the knees-up, oi-oi, lubbly-jubbly route, they still remembered to write great songs and emerged later with the likes of 13 and Think Tank.
If Albarn hadn’t already left would-be rivals like The Brothers Plod in the dust, then there was Gorillaz, the side project that ate the world. We'll get to the virtual band concept in a minute, but musically, the new monkey-er moniker allowed Albarn to further explore dub, hip hop, electronica, art pop, what they used to call world music, and anything else that took his fancy, to world-wide acclaim and phenomenal - 26 million! - sales figures. If I might extend the original comparison before dropping it completely, because you can't really compare Albarn with anyone, imagine Bowie released Lodger and it sold like Let's Dance.
The original idea of a virtual band, which came to Albarn and artist/Tank Girl creator/flatmate Jamie Hewlett as they were having their brains melted by MTV, was a brilliant concept and translated wonderfully to video, driven by Hewlett's world-building art, saying something about how society was fractured by the same technological advances that were making it smaller. Live is a trickier concept. If I remember rightly, the musicians - including Mick Jones and Paul Fuckin' Simonon - played behind screens for at least some of their gig in this very room about twelve years ago, and then used the visuals more as a secondary prop when the were outdoors in Malahide in 2018. They were both great shows but the collective really strike a perfect balance between a dazzling multimedia showcase of Hewlett's ideas and a stomping, kicking, sweating, dancing, rocking and rolling revue tonight.
Albarn/Hewlett's own version of ZOOTV opens with The Static Channel mashing up Gorillaz visuals with real-world tv detritus on an expanding TV screen graphic before a very green, very large 'Dia Dhuit' flashes up, engendering the first tidal-wave-crashing-into-a-beach-hut roar from the crowd who must have all taken frenzy pills on the way in. Albarn - clad in the kind of raggedy, black t-shirt one might relegate to sleep wear after years of loyal service - and his troops launch into 'M1A1' - "Hello, HELLO! Is there anyone there?". The extended ensemble - bass, guitar, keyboards, five backing vocalists and three separate drummers/percussionists - give out a mighty noise, combining with the searchlights to hit us over the head - "La, La, LA, LA, LA, HEY!" - with a punkish attack. Behind them, Hewlett's characters try to break through the static, worried perhaps that they might be surplus to requirements at their own show.
They then fly a campervan to the moon, where the Georges Méliès man in it is Robert Smith, singing 'Strange Timez". His "spinning around the world" line could serve as the Gorillaz musical manifesto while Albarn spreads the message further, howling into a microphone that truckers might have used for communication in Sam Pekinpah's Convoy. Now Smith's in a Clarke/Kubrick monolith and the message "Be The Change" is writ large on the moon's surface. As with the rest of the evening's show, it's a multi-sensual bombardment and I should have brought extra staff to help with the note taking. The crowd whisper/shout along with 'Last Living Souls' which starts with dub elements before the keyboard and drums take over, bringing a far heavier feel to the song than is there on the record, and a grinning Albarn puts his hands in the air and goes full rock lord in front of a zombie backdrop.
Talking of rock lords, he's down at the barrier for 'Tranz', simulating the dopamine and fluffing the audience into further ecstasy by wrapping himself, young Bono style, in a tricolour, as the real band play in front of the virtual one, transforming the recording on 2018's The Now Now into something far more irresistible. After professing himself to be 13% Irish to excuse the tricolour appropriation - he seems to be in good form, leave him alone - Albarn gets the Melodica out for the industrial dub of 'Tomorrow Comes Today' during which he manages to pull a house-ish riff out this instrument that some of us may remember from primary school. '19-2000' is as much of a sure shot as its chorus suggests, every free hand in the hall is in the air and waving, the belt of two drummers going at it adds an almost Glitter Band pound, and the perma-grinned Albarn now has a pink stetson on his head as he struts up and down the lip of the stage. Is it perhaps possible that the man enjoyed a tipple or two before coming to work? What harm if he did, he doesn't have to operate any heavy machinery, I'm sure someone will give him a lift back to the hotel, and he appears to be having as good a time as the rest of us.
He does get a brief respite as an on-screen Popcaan takes over for parts of 'Saturnz Barz' - I'll never get fully onside with autotuned vocals - before deciding to refer to us all as "Dublin" and declaring himself well-chuffed with an amazing reaction for a Wednesday. He's right too, the crowd that's in tonight are reacting to every note like sailors let loose on twenty-four hour shore leave, showing what serious heads they are by singing along with album track 'Rhinestone Eyes' while Albarn is again down at the barrier, pressing the flesh and even stopping to sign an autograph in the middle of the song. Security hold him up in the air and he grins like a teenager with vouchers for a knocking shop. He's not just infecting the crowd either. Look, one of the drummers is up and throwing shapes while he has a few minutes off.
The intricacies of the recent 'Cracker Island' get a bit lost, however. The Chic-like guitar and Thundercat's bass contribution - the bass suffers a few times throughout - are hard to make out but the backing vocals save it as a demon-eyed Albarn drives the dancing floor on. "Listen, can you just come see us every time we play? You're kind of amazing, I don't say that a lot, I'm not a script person, unlike some I could mention..." He seems genuinely taken aback by a crowd who would probably still jump up and down and go bananas even if Albarn suddenly decided to pick at his bellybutton and moan for half an hour. Instead, he piano intros 'O Green World' before it goes into a stop/start post-apocalyptic knees-up. The wrecked planet is there on the screen and Albarn wails as if driven mad at the song's end by what we've done to our blue home, or maybe I'm reading too much into it and should concentrate on my dancing instead.
He keeps all these plates in the air, playing acoustic guitar for 'On Melancholy Hill' and sneaking a Blur-like chorus in behind the big beat of 'El Mañana' as the Windmills crash behind him. He tells us how they played that song in Helsinki a few nights ago and a beautiful super moon rose behind the audience. That's impossible here, he reckons before perhaps realising he's digging a hole which he bounds out of by declaring that WE are the super moon tonight! Hurrah! Well-played.
'Empire Ants' from 2010's Plastic Beach - those first three Gorillaz albums are flawless - has the balcony adding some extra lighting by holding up their phones and it's a beautiful sight that sits perfectly with the big keyboard sound and Little Dragon's screen-delivered vocal spot. To niggle, I thought the ball was dropped slightly by calling support act Moonchild Sanelly back out for 'With Love To An Ex' from 2020's patchy Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. I didn't get much from her opening slot, it all seemed a bit tuneless and derrière-obsessed for my liking, but she received a rapturous reception, so what do I know? Despite that, it was nice to see Albarn sporting a fetching pink boxing robe. They got more than back on track with a phenomenal 'Kids With Guns'. There was something of the hellfire preacher about Damon as he ranted over that guitar riff, then the "Push It" section rose up, the main man had us all doing the "ooh, OOHs" and then it went somewhere else entirely. Imagine The Prodigy covering The Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' as one of the backing vocalists - forgive me, I can't find her name - stepped forward and went full Merry Clayton. A highlight in a night full of them.
That would have been plenty, but 'Andromeda' was gorgeous and 'Dirt Harry' is such a groovy bastard that it didn't even really need Albarn as Pharcyde man Bootie Brown took over. Even your correspondent was up and shaping at this stage, showing his teenage daughters how it's done. Thankfully, they were far too busy doing their own thing to be mortified. We barely got a chance to catch a breath before Shaun Ryder's disembodied head led us through 'DARE', another cut that sounds - thanks to the superb backing vocals - better than it does on record. Albarn is down the back at the keyboards, taking care of business, happy as Larry.
The chorus of 'Momentary Bliss' - driven by Slowthai and Slaves on the screen - is absolutely furious, the 3Arena a maelstrom of shouts and swinging arms, like some class of extremist rally, with true believers speaking in tongues. When it's done, Albarn calls us a perfect crowd and reckons he doesn't give a fuck what the reviewers say as long as they give the audience a 10/10. Well, here I am. The crowd were a huge part of what made tonight so special. To say they were "up for it" is a bit like saying greyhounds have a mild interest in running around after hares. Mind you, the band are pretty handy too. Again, the backing vocals lift 'Plastic Beach' as it closes out the main set with Albarn, deservedly proud as punch, howling out, "you have been watching GorillAAAZZZZ!"
They could have gone off to the bar at this point and no one would have felt short changed, but that's not what happened. A wall of foot stomping and hollering brought them back out and such was the momentum of this show that even 'The Pink Phantom', the collaboration with 6LACK - more autotune, whatever - and Elton John sounded good, when it didn't before. Albarns at the piano in a pair of chunky, heart-shaped goggles which must be a tribute to Sir Reg. He really is in an admirable I don't give a fuck/I'm deadly serious mood tonight. 'Stylo' nearly levels the place, Bootie Brown is back out having perhaps plugged himself in to the mains during his break. When Bobby Womack's vocals come in on top of that motorik groove, it goes up another few notches and then the backing vocals inject some gospel revival. Where can they go from there? De La Soul's Posdnuos has his opening declaration interrupted by Albarn, who leads us all in happy birthday to Pos before he gets back to what he was saying, "I will never let anyone tell me what to think, what to say, who to love, or what to feel." I feel strong, I feel love, I feel confident, I feel sexy, I FEEL GOOD!"
If you could stand still for 'Feel Good Inc.' then you're made of stronger stuff than I. Perhaps I could tell you about Albarn going on about windmills, and Pos doing his thing but we were all far too busy getting down. The floor below us was alive, a single organism writhing in time to this ridiculous groove machine of a band, then he got the Melodica out again and they did 'Clint Eastwood'. Sunshine in a bag indeed.
Unfortunately, as this song doubled its pace into remix mode, I had to slip out for the train, anxious to get daughters home to their mother and avoid unnecessary ire. Did they go on to play their marvellous 'Don't Get Lost In Heaven/Demon Days' medley, as rumour suggests? If they did, it was my loss. Ah well, it couldn't be helped.
I regularly spout off in an annoying manner on these pages about fabulous gigs I've been fortunate enough to attend, and here was another one. To have a great band - and Albarn has assembled an exceptional unit - playing great songs is usually more than enough but add Hewlett's unique visuals and you get something else entirely. On top of that, you had a venue full of people acting like they were on their first night out after a very long stretch in jail and were intent on having a ball no matter what. Gorillaz could have sauntered on, gone lazily through the motions, and it still would have been a massive hooley, but that would never happen. Damon Albarn's proven time and time again over the last three decades that he is the hardest working man in showbiz. It also helps if you're a bit of a genius, which Albarn undoubtedly is. You should have been there.