Please forgive me if I occasionally find myself waxing hyperbolic about the Gorillaz performance last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, but it may have been (and I’m debating the “may have” portion of that) the best concert I have ever had the privilege to attend. Many things factor into my feeling this way…. some of which have nothing to do with the show itself, such as this being my 5 and 8 year old daughters first concert experience… a fantastic crowd… a surprisingly comfortable and pleasant venue… and being the night before Halloween allowed the crowd, the band and the entire arena to permit itself to have some un-ironic and unabashed fun. As to the band… I have never witnessed such an amazing feat of musical and theatrical artistry. This was not a simple concert… it was a performance of so many richly textured layers you don’t even realize what you are in the midst of until it’s over.
From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, with the exception of the $30 parking fee, everything felt fun and easy going. We saw quite a few other parents with their young ones, many people in costumes ranging from large furry animals to Clockwork Orange droogies and of course, the ubiquitous merchandise. Fortunately, having done our homework and realizing the shirts were available online, and significantly cheaper we settled on getting a program… and I couldn’t be more pleased. A nice book filled with awesome artwork and a wonderful guide to the backstory of the band from the last we had seen of them in 2006 to present. I believe Mrs. Blahg and I prevented the girls from looking at it for a while in the name of… ahem… “not getting it dirty”.We opted not to take our seats for the opening band, N.E.R.D., due to not wanting to push the envelope with two wee people and having their ears hurting too much (although they were wearing ear plugs for the concert itself) or just getting restless having to be cramped in a seat for too long…. we enjoyed a couple of beers (Mrs. Blahg and I… not the kids) and some snacks while being able to hear the band. It was good for getting some energy both out of the way in terms of being stationary for too long and amped up for the main event. I hadn’t heard of N.E.R.D. prior to this, but I am certainly interested in hearing more. They sounded like a supporting band very much in tune with the eclectic nature of Gorillaz. Genre crossing mixes of styles and tempos…. the audience seemed to respond very well. When they finished up, we made our way to the floor…
As the lights went down the large screen above the stage lit up with the grumbling sneer and gravely voice of Murdoc himself, lamenting being cooped up in a room with that idiot 2D, seen in the background mumbling something or other…. everyone went crazy. The stage populated with a group of women in sailor suits in the back on strings… about 7 or 8 men in grey/black striped shirts wearing Jasonesque hockey masks on horns at the front left…. 9 piece band containing ex-Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in proper nautical gear and a line of backup singers in bloodied bandages. Strings swelling for the Orchestral Intro to Plastic Beach, and the image of Snoop Dogg appears on the screen as they move into Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and the word GORILLAZ is spelled out in what will be ever changing colors below the screen.
Damon Albarn arriving on stage felt like the arrival of that friend everyone knows… but not too well… yet everyone seems to love and never have a bad thing to say about. Smiling from ear to ear, and wearing zombie makeup… he immediately took command of the stage and the audience. I had read a review of their performance at Coachella that said Albarn never connected with the crowd and felt distant and too technical. If that was the reality then… it was nowhere to be seen today. His rapport with the crowd was immediate. He moved from side to side… front to back. Moving from piano on some songs, front and center at others and amazingly comfortable and reassuring during the times his is just a supporting role. Gorillaz has always been, since day one, about music as a communal experience. There is no single driving ego (excluding Murdoc of course… and theoretically at least) behind the band. It is a collective venture. Yet, at all times his hand was evident… it was like watching a master composer orchestrate an opus whilst having various instruments and headliners perpetually shifting from song to song… and to be able to coordinate that without a single flaw or visible seam was beyond impressive. And as if that were not inspiring enough… to have the entire show perfectly timed and synched up with the videos playing overhead… so cool.
Of the featured artists who performed… Bobby Womack was on hand for Stylo, Cloud of Unknowing and Demon Days… Little Dragon was amazing on Empire Ants and a surprisingly touching and sweet To Binge… Bootie Brown bringing his infectious energy to Dirty Harry… Kano and Bashy joining the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music on White Flag… and yes, Albarn not being featured in this song comes out with the huge white flag and handing it off to the front row… Kano and Bashy returning to fill in for Del the Funky Homosapien on Clint Eastwood (shame Del couldn’t perform seeing how Oakland is his hometown and all… who knows)… and finally, De La Soul. First two of the three come out for Superfast Jellyfish wearing odd little masks… then beginning with that ridiculous laugh during the encore… all three to support Feel Good Inc. An impressive cavalcade of talent being brought out one after the other… and each and everyone not only rising to the occasion, but so obviously enjoying themselves. I would find it difficult to believe that so many performers could be seeming to have that much fun and still sound so remarkable if I hadn’t been there to hear and see it myself.
Visually… many songs were either backed up by the official video for that piece… others had song specific videos directed and created by Jaime Hewlett. Always stunning. For as much as my girls may not have understood everything happening on stage, they certainly understood most of what was happening on the screen. They’ve seen the videos, they know most of the backstory/mythology of the band. Beautiful, haunting at times, hilarious at others. Art has never meant so much to any other band.
Mid-way through the show as in the beginning, Murdoc appears in a growing state of agitation waiting for his “warm up band” to hurry up so the real band could play. It was a bit of silly fun, and I’m sure a bit of a wink and nod to the conceit of this remarkable band and piece of theater still being considered nothing more than a gimmicky cartoon band. Just last week I had read an article claiming Gorillaz to be the best fictional cartoon bands and lumping them together with Josie and the Pussycats, Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Archies. Even this morning I read another review of the show I just saw that brought up the Alvin comparison and saying this band doesn‘t have an impressive enough set list to fill a 100 minute show. I suppose if you go into something limiting what it is and what it can be from the beginning, you will not be able to see what is right in front of your face. The band playing on stage last night was very much real. The music was very much real. Certain songs I thought were full of energy on the album… now seem anemic in comparison to the live version. Although the meticulous nature of putting together a show like this might stifle something of this magnitude, Albarn and company pull it off in a way that exceeded my wildest expectations… and I honestly, mine were set rather high at the get go. I don’t know if I will have the opportunity to see a show like this again… but if I do, I will jump at the chance, and my advice to you would be to follow suit.
The future, is coming on… is coming on.. is coming on…
Cornelius J. Blahg
P.S. Although I normally don’t do this, I took notes during the show and wrote down the set list… here it is for your curiosity:
Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach
Last Living Souls
On Melancholy Hill
Tomorrow Comes Today
(break – encore)
Cloud of Unknowing
Feel Good, Inc.
Don’t Get Lost in Heaven