Imagine witnessing hip-hoplegends De La Soul trading rhymes over the jabs and swells of a live string septet. Or Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori bopping around with the Clash’s Paul Simonon and Mick Jones. Or the gaunt, sage face of Snoop Dogg, four stories tall and waxing philosophical from a massive screen suspended above a blazing brass section, plus the string septet, plus Simonon and Jones, and plus countless other joyous onstage noisemakers.
“It’s like a juggernaut once it starts,” says Damon Albarn, musical mastermind behind Gorillaz. The peculiar pop project he and illustrator Jamie Hewlett founded 12 years ago in a shared London flat has grown from a virtual band of comic-book characters to a traveling spectacle of Barnumesque proportions. “There’s no stopping it,” says Albarn. “The magic is in the way it mesmerizes, brings you into its world.”
He’s not exaggerating. Any of the aforementioned scenarios would have been worth the price of admission to a stop along Gorillaz’s 2010 48-date tour (including stops in Damascus and Hong Kong). Instead, every night, Albarn and Hewlett offer a two-hour immersion in a universe where far-fetched fantasy becomes reality. Overhead, Hewlett’s four animated band members scurry around their apartment, run from the law, dodge death, and discover their third album’s titular paradise, Plastic Beach. But down below, a rotating cast of nearly 50 different musicians do the dirty work: Bobby Womack, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown, U.K. rappers Bashy and Kano, the American Syrian Orchestra. Even Mos Def and Lou Reed occasionally show up.
Perhaps this is just what happens when a Grammy-winning, multiplatinum cartoon band gets its wings? Before this tour, Albarn and friends stayed behind a curtain, even commissioning a large holographic rig for a pair of awards-show appearances. (Madonna literally danced circles around 3-D “bassist” Murdoc and “guitarist” Noodle at the 2006 Grammys.) Then they discovered a disturbing flaw.
“The bass,” says Hewlett. “The vibra-tions cause the holograms to fall to pieces.” The decision to create the new show, however, wasn’t inspired just by technical difficulties. When Albarn realized he had half the Clash at his disposal, he couldn’t imagine hiding the punk icons. “Once they were up for a tour, I said, ‘Let’s put a band together.’?” So, Albarn filled eight buses with as many crew members as performers (including “an army of cooks”). All things considered — the instruments, the screens, the gigantic glowing letters spelling out the band’s name — surely he could’ve trimmed the budget.
“I think you overdo it or you don’t bother,” Albarn says. The end result actually one-ups the anime-on-Broadway ambition of his and Hewlett’s 2007 opera, Monkey: Journey to the West. “It does beg the question,” offers Hewlett, “where do we go from here?” We can’t wait to find out.
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