Balls Deep in Gorillaz Live

Cards on the table – I love Gorillaz. A lot of what you’ll read from yours truly will either be about them or about 50-year old front man Damon Albarn, so I am particularly proud to debut Audio Snobbery’s “Balls Deep” section with a homage to the band’s brilliant live performances. Reading it will hopefully convince those of you who – for whatever reason – have yet to treat yourselves to a live show from one of the most diverse and eclectic bands of the 21st century, to do so imperatively. Trust me, you really don’t know what you are missing until you see them.

Long story short, and after an extended hiatus, Albarn and his pals decided to stop screwing around and got back to the studio to reward our everlasting patience with 2 new Gorillaz records in little over a year. Following the release of Humanz in April 2017, the Gorillaz train was back on track for a year-long tour to bring life to Albarn and Jamie Hellewt’s fictional characters and their music.

Despite considering myself a die-hard Gorillaz fan, I had never had the opportunity to see them live – a predicament which, I must admit, kept me awake most nights. Aiming to correct this enormous fault and finally get a good night’s sleep, I decided to see them as many times as I could. This quite complex plan would also allow me to make it through the next foreseeable Gorillaz drought – after all, you never know when Albarn might change his mind and pause Gorillaz to go back to one of his other countless projects (the fool!).

The band announced so many shows that I was afforded the freedom to pace myself and carefully choose which concerts to attend. I ended up kicking off my own Gorillaz tour at Demon Dayz Festival back in June 2017, followed by shows at Dusseldorf, Sonar, Bilbao BBK and Sziget. Different countries, different cities, different settings and different crowds, but one thing in common – a show stealing performance from a band that, for the last 17 years, did what they wanted, when they wanted and how they wanted.

It is always impressive to see Gorillaz live: captained by a yellow-shirted Damon Albarn, a too-big-to-be-named squad of percussionists, keyboardists, guitarists and backing vocals takes up most of the stage to embark on a journey through their 17-year old career. At every show the crowd is a fascinating mix of old school fans, followers of the virtual band since the late 1990s, and younger aficionados, who have already memorized newer singles like Hollywood and Tranz, and want a seat at the big boys’ table. It is clear that, despite being a white middle-aged man raised between London and Colchester, Albarn is as important to this new crop of international music fans as he is to his original base. Armed with a megaphone, Albarn addresses us with a loud “Hello? Is there anybody there?”, and A1 M1, which beautifully closes Gorillaz’s eponymous 17-year old debut album, gets a truly remarkable live experience underway.

The show moves on, and while the same crowd repeatedly asks “are we the last living souls?”, I am reminded that what I most appreciate about Gorillaz’s music is the band’s trademark sorrowful and melancholic tone. Sure, newer songs such as Strobelite and Andromeda mesh well with older hits and keep the pace of the concert going, but there is something about how Albarn expresses his dark meditations that makes Gorillaz’s music truly unique. Tomorrow Comes Today and Every Planet We Reach is Dead are also perfect examples of how Albarn’s distinctive voice, accompanied by a crescendo of pianos and a frenzy of guitars, shines through messages of overpopulation, human waste and a world gone mad.

Throughout the tour, and despite several guest appearances from names such as De La Soul, Peven Everett, Vince Staples, Jamie Principle, Kali Uchis and Little Simz (just to name a few), it goes without saying that the star of the show is Albarn, who sings, plays and conducts this magnificent – and very much in-the-flesh – live experience. He often passes centre-stage to his co-superstars on tracks such as Superfast Jellyfish, Dirty Harry, Stylo, or 2005’s masterpiece, Feel Good Inc., retreating into the guitar or the piano, but On Melancholy Hill and El Mañana bring him back into the spotlight once again.

I must point out 2 highlights of this festival run – Benjamin Clementine’s appearance on stage during BBK’s performance to live debut Hallelujah Money, the anti-Trump single that heralded Gorillaz’s return from their 6-year hiatus back in January 2017, and the extraordinary rendition of other new track, Souk Eye, at Sónar, which completely caught me off guard (in defence of my self-proclaimed super-fandom, The Now Now would only be released 2 weeks after the Sónar show, excusing my lack of knowledge at the time). It is still surprising that the best moment of that entire performance came from their latest album.

Another curious observation worth sharing is the number of people that leave the venue as soon as the band thanks the audience and walks off stage – it’s too damn high! At any given show, while the rookies quickly disperse, you find yourself wondering if people shouldn’t know by now that the encore has become an integral part of any concert. This train of thought could lead to an entirely separate post on how encores have become a standard part of any setlist by default, rather than an actual reward for a great performance or an astonishing crowd (Balls Deep in Encores, anyone?). However, as soon as Gorillaz walk back on-stage to play a beautiful rendition of Lake Zurich, another great track from The Now Now that kicked off most of the tour’s encores, fears of too much encore quickly dissipate.

By now, I typically have a desperate craving for a beer, and even contemplate the possibility of listening to the final songs by the bar, chugging a couple of pints to “make up for lost time.” However, unlike the aforementioned amateurs, I am no rookie, and I know that they are saving the best for last -– appreciating that this is a dangerous and bold statement to make at any Gorillaz concert – world class anthems Kids with Guns and Clint Eastwood are still missing from the setlist.

Gorillaz allowed Albarn to do something he never could with Blur -– to explore influences such as hip-hop, funk, folk, electronic, dub, reggae and world music, without being frowned upon. In fact, the band’s career seems to be a stage on which everyone could show up and work a groove, which reinforces their genre-mashing reputation over and over again. Adding world class stars to front these tracks lends even more credibility to the act (and let’s be honest, who in their right mind would criticise Albarn-derived hip-hop featuring Snoop Dogg or Mos Def?).

Minutes before curfew, the sounds of Albarn’s famous melodica make the crowd go crazy one last time. Let me take this opportunity to share a couple of beautiful thoughts about Clint Eastwood that have been in my head since I first heard it 17 years ago: what the hell is that instrument? “Melodica” – is that even a real name? Why on earth is it used so many times on Gorillaz’s debut album? Was it a bet with someone? I keep imagining Albarn turning to his mates and announcing “I bet you guys I can make a couple of worldwide hit songs with an instrument that 90% of the world will have to Google for the name.” Whatever the reason, it’s clear he nailed it with the damn melodica, turning Gorillaz breakthrough single into one of the most known anthems of the 21st century. As Albarn raises the mic to the crowd – letting us the take the lead on the closing of the show – it is as plain as the nose on your face that nearly everyone in the audience is well-educated and knows exactly how to deliver the correct amount of irony that an iconic verse like “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad” requires.

After 17 years, we are now old (and hopefully mature) enough to fully appreciate the Albarn’s oft-used irony. Although gloomy in tone, his messages end up being of optimism and content, which is exactly what we are left with after each and every show. Along the tour Jamie Hewlett’s cartoons make brief appearances, as 2018’s Gorillaz are much more about the real band members than the virtual ones. The time to hide behind animations and curtains has passed, and they know it – it’s time to put the alter egos on the backseat and let the real stars take over the wheel.