Gorillaz At Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday
You know how it is when you go to a big animated feature film, and at the end you see the names of the surprising number of people who helped draw the thing? It was a bit like that at the Gorillaz show on Thursday, as nearly 30 musicians and an unknown number of animators and visual technicians conspired to bring to life songs supposedly created and performed by four dystopian cartoon characters.
Gorillaz came to virtual life in 1998, and put out its first album in 2001. I doubt that even Damon Albarn, the imaginative British musician who co-founded the group with comics artist Jamie Hewlett, could have foreseen that within a decade it would sell more than 20 million albums and be on the road for a stadium world tour. Albarn pretty much declared the band dead as a new song-making entity four years ago. But like characters in a shooter-type video game, Gorillaz do not die: They regenerate in new and more cunning forms.
Thursday's concert was a split-level affair, with the live show filling the stage and a song-by-song visual entertainment happening on a giant screen above, depicting the mayhem-filled adventures of the virtual band. You could choose which reality to invest in.
A framing conceit for the presence of the live players was provided by two video segments in which the increasingly frustrated virtual band appeared to be waiting in a dressing room for the warm-up band (Albarn & Co.) to finish. The rest of the screen stuff consisted of Gorillaz music videos, slow-pan animations of the detritus-based luxury island retreat Plastic Beach and still images given the feel of animation through camera movement and gradual colour saturation. Through some digital sleight-of-hand, Albarn's distinctive slack vocals were usually synchronized with his lip-synching animated cohort, 2-D.
The songs amounted to a virtual greatest-hits selection from the three Gorillaz albums, the most recent being last spring's Plastic Beach. Like most other songwriters, Albarn has certain fingerprints that show up on everything he does (most evident in his melodic style and melancholic tone), but in other respects he's a musical polymath who seems able to adapt and refresh any style. The show ran from the wind-up electro-pop number DARE (still one of Gorillaz's most compulsive grooves), to the hippie-pop anthem On Melancholy Hill, to the hip-hop swagger of Superfast Jellyfish, to the Beach Boys tribute Don't Get Lost in Heaven.
You can get a rough idea of Gorillaz's stylistic breadth by the diverse bunch of people on the tour. They included rap group De La Soul, soul veteran Bobby Womack, synth-pop singer Yukimi Nagano (of Little Dragon), two members of punk band the Clash (guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon), a brass ensemble from Chicago and a traditional Syrian music group.
Everyone had their moment, or two, in the tightly structured two-hour show, while the virtual band on the screen street-raced with Bruce Willis or dodged aerial attacks by helicopter gunships. The Gorillaz's world is a dangerous, disordered place, but it's fun to run around in, even after you start noticing how much it resembles our own.
N.E.R.D. opened the show with an energetic set of "songs that we hope are gonna be the soundtrack for the rest of your lives," as nerd-in-chief Pharrell Williams gamely put it, referring to tunes from the group's forthcoming album Nothing. The numbers performed included some powerful grooves, though I wasn't so sold on the lyrics, or on the strategy of throwing most of the melodic instrumentals to a cheesy-sounding synthesizer.
Gorillaz's Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour reaches the Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Nov. 3.