No better time to work out the real-vs.-artifice dilemma than the opening night of your world tour, and no one better to do it than a cartoon band come to life. On Sunday night, Gorillaz were in our midst.
And what is “the real,” anyway? The issue washes up on the band’s 2010 album Plastic Beach, where head ape Damon Albarn explores the conflicted but interesting theme of artifice as not necessarily antithetical to nature , but an outgrowth of it — which would make sense for a guy pretending to be a cartoon. But there was no doubting the human element on this night in Montreal, with 7,000 fans jumping around like monkeys.
While Jamie Hewlett’s lurid FX and video brought Gorillaz to life on MTV (or YouTube), it was a live band featuring half of the Clash (!) — guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon in nautical caps on either side of the stage — soul singer Bobby Womack, and hip-hop trailblazers De La Soul that realized the vision in person. And under the videoscreen, in front of boldly illuminated six-foot block letters spelling the band name stood Albarn, the Host in the Machine.
“So this is our first night of our first tour,” Albarn said to a massive cheer. “Gorillaz have been a band for 10 years in many different guises, this is our ‘coming out’, so to speak.” They came out in party mode. The set was largely the same as the band’s Glastonbury Festival appearance this past summer, when Albarn supposedly had to beg for a crowd response. No problem in Montreal, where the crowd was onboard from the moment Snoop Dogg launched Plastic Beach’s “Welcome to the World” — albeit in video form only, while Albarn bounded in front of seven-piece string section, four backing vocalists, and the keyboards that bring to studio oomph to life. A questionable intro, but the only iffy moment in the debut.
After the exultant elegy “O Green World,” with Albarn on upright piano and Mick and Paul sharing one mic, Bobby Womack emerged for the head-bobbing “Stylo” while the animated Murdoc, 2D, and Noodle engaged in highway gunplay with Bruce Willis onscreen, in the song’s music video. The blithe melody of “On Melancholy Hill” triggered the popcorning “Rhinestone Eyes” and bombastic “Superfast Jellyfish.”
Albarn worked that dynamic — shifting from upbeat stormers to melancholy lament — throughout 90-plus minutes, with great results: The stompy “Kids with Guns” dropped down into an ’80s New-Romantic chillout in “Empire Ants” and the energetically akimbo “Dirty Harry.” An airy duet in “To Binge” with Little Dragon gave way to “D.A.R.E.” and a massively clubby “Glitter Freeze,” loosening up the crowd anew. Even an opening night slipup — Albarn introducing guest Damascan musicians one song early, to his sheepish bemusement — segued into a rousing”White Flag,” with De La Soul rampaging across the stage.
Lest there were any remaining doubt of Albarn’s commitment to mixing introspection with crowd-pleasers , the encore opened with Womack’s soulful “Cloud of Unknowing” before ridiculously hooky “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood,” the project’s breakthrough hit — ultimately proving that Albarn could bring his beats and wistful melodies in equal measure, and that Gorillaz can thrive outside of studio captivity.