Thursday: alongside the track list for upcoming new album Humanz, a secret, for-the-fans Gorillaz live show is announced, to take place in London the following evening. Friday: the monkey business begins at the enormous former printworks near Surrey Quays called, ingeniously, Printworks, as fans, guests and a palpable sense of excitement congregate to hear the first in-public workout of the new songs.
In the same 24 hours, four of the album’s tracks had been made available, to add to another, Hallelujah Money, released in January. Gorillaz was trending on Facebook and Twitter. Having already sold out their festival Demon Dayz at Margate’s Dreamland in 10 minutes flat, it’s clear that, well over a decade after it began, the twists and turns of Damon Albarn’s ‘side project’ are no less noteworthy now.
Inevitably, over the passing of all that time the Gorillaz universe has evolved. What started out as musicians playing behind a screen while Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon troupe acted out in front of them is these days far more about a collaborative coming-together of people who clearly enjoy playing music together, and who are visible on stage throughout. Live, Gorillaz now closely resembles Albarn’s Africa Express project, which also winds through a revolving cast, and while the cartoons and artwork are still integral, the balance between real and two-dimensional – between Albarn and 2D, if you like – has definitely, perhaps definitively, shifted.
The event (it would be underplaying things a little to call this a mere gig) starts inauspiciously, with Albarn mooching on to the stage with barely a whoop of recognition, taking his place at an upright piano amid the gloom. He is accompanied principally by a half-hidden gospel choir, while at the back of the stage, graphics begin to appear, and then the album’s run-through is underway with Intro: I Switched My Robot Off.
What follows is a dizzying sequence of entrances and exits, punctuated by songs. The guest star names alone are enough to fill a review, despite Albarn pointing out that they’re not all here tonight, although he promises a full house for Demon Dayz. After the first big number, Strobelite, he informs the audience that they should shout “rewind” if they want to hear it again. Some voices pipe up, but not loud enough, apparently – “it’s supposed to be unanimous, not this 48/52 shit,” he says, referencing a certain recent seismic political event, and on the show goes according to its host’s plans.
An early highlight comes in the form of Hallelujah Money, which features the charismatic presence of Benjamin Clementine, whose towering hairstyle is as recognisable as his dramatic, opera-ish voice. De La Soul return to the Gorillaz fold for Momentz, while Let Me Out sports the sadly absent Mavis Staples on the big screen, and – what a pity – Her Grace of Jones is similarly missing for her turn on Charger.
In between, Albarn leads on Saturnz Barz, a melancholic number saved from navel-gazing by its production sheen and video, and reminds the room that for all his joy in collaboration, he remains a magnetic front man. Across the backdrop images vary from horizontal lightning to a flapping pelican, and the focus shifts, shifts again.
Even without a full scorecard there are so many guest stars, so few of whom are introduced, that some are only noticed at the end of their alloted slots. Albarn’s Blur compadre Graham Coxon is on stage in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it turn in Submission, and while the striking presence of Savages’ Jehnny Beth leads unassailably from the front for album closer We Got The Power, also on stage and looking for the most part like a session guitarist is Noel Gallagher. At one point he and Albarn, the latter wielding a white keytar which he sports several times during the set, sing face to face, but they are mere parts of an ensemble – French electronica icon Jean-Michel Jarre is in amongst it all too, his groomed grey head mainly noticed when he waves to the crowd on departing. It all looks like tremendous fun for the participants.
Having wowed with the new material, the encore finds space for a mining of what is now a considerable catalogue. Kids With Guns brings about whoops of recognition, and De La Soul amiably return for Feel Good Inc., while Del The Funky Homosapien bucks the trend in getting an introduction, for this marks the first time he’s performed live with Gorillaz on the iconic track Clint Eastwood – his place was taken by Kano at Albarn’s solo album launch at Brockley’s Rivoli Ballroom back in 2014. Hoots, melancholic melodica and simple bass and chords underpin the singalong chorus which everyone in the room seems to know – ”I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad, I got sunshine, in a bag I’m useless, but not for long, the future, is coming on”. It’s anthemic.
It’s been a triumphant event with even more talking points than the political landscape of 2017, and the Humanz campaign has barely begun.
Gorillaz played: Intro: I Switched My Robot Off , Ascension, Strobelite (with Peven Everett) , Saturnz Barz, Momentz (with Azekel and De La Soul), Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath , Submission (with Danny Brown, Kelela and Graham Coxon) , Charger, Interlude: Elevator Going Up , Andromeda, Busted and Blue (with Kelela) , Carnival (with Anthony Hamilton) , Let Me Out (with Pusha T) , Let Me Out (with Pusha T) (Reprise) Interlude: Penthouse , Sex Murder Party (with Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz) , She’s My Collar (with Kali Uchis), Interlude: The Elephant, Hallelujah Money (with Benjamin Clementine) , We Got the Power (with Noel Gallagher, Jehnny Beth and Jean Michel Jarre), We Got the Power (with Noel Gallagher) (Reprise) Encore: Kids With Guns, Feel Good Inc. (with De La Soul) , Clint Eastwood (with Del the Funky Homosapien) Encore 2: Don’t Get Lost in Heaven, Demon Days
Gorillaz’ new album Humanz is released on 28 April 2017 through Parlophone. They headline the Demon Dayz festival at Dreamland, Margate on 10 June, with a full set of tour dates to be announced soon. Further information at gorillaz.com