When Gorillaz first appeared a few years ago, they seemed to be little more than a knowing joke played by Damon Albarn – here was the ultimate manufactured band, cartoon characters with personalities all of their own. As the name suggested, they seemed to be The Monkees taken to the ultimate extreme.
Yet, as with all things Albarn touches, the debut album was an extraordinarily good piece of work – the freedom away from his day job in Blur allowed him to explore genres such as rap, hip-hop, world music and good old fashioned pop and mesh them together expertly. This year’s follow up, Demon Days, was even better and confirmed that Gorillaz are very far from Albarn’s novelty project.
This five-night residence at Manchester’s Opera House would be the first time we’d see Gorillaz in the flesh as it were, as on previous occasions the band had been hidden away behind a screen. Although the much rumoured 3-D cartoon holograms of the band failed to materialise, there were life size puppets of 2D and Murdoc in the royal box performing a comic dialogue before the show began – and they were later to be spotted throwing popcorn at the people in the stalls!
After a rather odd little Daffy Duck cartoon was projected onto stage, the curtain lifted and we saw our first sight of the band. With at least 25 people crammed onto stage, including a 14 piece string section, plus a constantly changing video montage on the projection screen, there was never going to be any danger of boredom at this gig.
The unmistakable figure of Albarn sat centre-stage behind his piano, encased in a silhouette, and the incredibly ambitious task of recreating the entire Demon Days album began. The sound was just terrific – whether it be the string section on the opening Last Living Souls, or the children’s choir on Dirty Harry, the superb acoustics of the Opera House were perfectly suited to Gorillaz’ eclectic sound.
Most of Demon Days’ guest vocalists put in an appearance – Neneh Cherry popping up to sing just a couple of lines on the eerie Kids With Guns and looking like she was enjoying every moment, Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird duetting on the sumptuous All Alone and even Ike Turner bodypopping his way onto stage to play a show stopping piano riff at the end of Every Planet That We Reach Is Dead.
It was the less famous figures of the Wythenshawe Children’s Choir who stole the show during the glorious performance of Dirty Harry. As they shimmied and danced through their number, the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the children was obvious to see – these were no stage school brats, rather ordinary kids being handed the gig of a lifetime by Albarn. They took it gloriously, and their performance was the highlight of the evening.
This wasn’t just a musical treat though – the lighting throughout was exceptional, with the stage being bathed in a red glow for Kids With Guns, or flashing bright white for the exhilarating White Light. The video montages were always entertaining too, with a sketching coming to life before our eyes during the beautiful El Manana, or a befuddled tramp during White Light. However, it was of course the cartoon characters of the band who were the main stars on the screen.
There only seemed to be one technical hitch during tonight’s performance – as the unmistakable sound of local boy Shaun Ryder echoed through the Opera House, he staggered onto stage, and Albarn disappeared. He ran through DARE, but something didn’t seem quite right. After a couple of minutes of confusion, Albarn reappeared and the band launched into DARE again with Ryder making a reappearance. Nobody was entirely sure what had happened, but just the sight of the rather bewildered looking Happy Mondays man was enough to get the adoring crowd on their feet.
On the album, the final three songs are pretty much superlative, and so it was with the live performance. Sadly, there was to be no sign of Dennis Hopper for Fire Coming Out Of A Monkey’s Head, but the Manchester Community Choir appeared to add some real atmosphere to an already spooky song. The final chords of the title track finished, but thankfully this wasn’t the end of the show.
Coming out of the silhouette, Albarn took centre stage (and received a standing ovation) to sing the gorgeously sparse Hong Kong, from the War Child: Day In The Life album, and then a video tribute to the late Ibrahim Ferrer was screened, with the band playing along to his contribution to the first Gorillaz album, Que Pasa Contigo. It was a dignified ending to one of the most extraordinary gigs of the year – it had the potential to fall flat on its face, but to Albarn’s eternal credit, the first live appearance of Gorillaz is an undoubted triumph.