A Gorillaz live show has never, strictly speaking, made any sense. The band’s musicians have always had an uneasy relationship with the gang of cartoon characters that portray them. In the early days, the cartoon was the band and that was it; they did their own Cribs episode, for example, and toured with a massive screen with cartoons broadcast on top of it. The actual musicians performed behind that screen, anonymized as much as possible. On the 2010 tour for Plastic Beach, Gorillaz eased up on that a little by creating an elaborate fiction that allowed them to muzzle the band, its human performers playing onstage while interstitial videos documented the story of the cartoons attempting to escape from backstage. At this point, they were already testing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, if not their entire willingness to go along with this whole cartoon-band conceit.
And yet the cartoons are still a huge part of Gorillaz’s appeal, as evidenced by the surprisingly lore-friendly crowd at its Chicago tour opener this weekend, where the fedoras and Deadpool shirts were plentiful. Initially those comic book trappings were just a means for Damon Albarn to disappear and create the hip-hop record he couldn’t with Blur. But at this point, Gorillaz is a whole expanded universe to explore. Albarn et al have probed the real world/fictional disjunct with a dizzying amount of technological curiosity, trading in countless interactive websites and augmented-reality games and apps, and evincing a gadget-friendly fondness for blurring the lines between music, fan, fiction, and interactivity. For Gorillaz superfans, liking Gorillaz’s music is appended by exploring countless Gorillaz things.
Compounding this is the fact that, while the project has benefited from guest stars ever since “Clint Eastwood,” it’s now grown downright addicted to them. The fondness for playing karaoke party host that was indulged on Plastic Beach dominated this year’s Humanz; much like the recent DJ records by DJ Khaled, Mike Will Made-It, and Calvin Harris, Humanz serves as a constantly shuffling montage of performers that includes Danny Brown, Pusha T, Mavis Staples, Grace Jones, and De La Soul, among many others. I was curious as to how that album, the band’s most special guest-heavy and fiction-drenched, might be brought to life in 2017. Five years after the Tupac hologram briefly set the concert-going world’s imagination ablaze, would the technologically minded Gorillaz attempt similar digital tricks?
Actually, it turns out the group addressed that question by saying fuck it, and finally admitting that Albarn is the real star here. On their new tour, the animated Gorillaz are almost entirely absent, popping up only intermittently via heavily filtered, tiled screenshots behind the performers—and that was it. And even then, these were generally just shots already familiar from the videos, intermingled with more bespoke (but traditional) live-show graphics: druggy washes of color, computer-interface iconography, etc.
Throughout, the emphasis remained on Albarn, his dozen-plus member band, and his many collaborators, the specter of whom added a bit of electricity not always felt on record. Vince Staples, for example, showed up for a vanishingly fast cameo in Chicago, ducking offstage uncredited, while Jehnny Beth’s cameo on “We Got The Power” was replaced here with an exuberant guest spot from opener Little Simz. Others, like D.R.A.M. and Popcaan, took the form of prerecorded videos broadcast behind the band. All of this left plenty of room for Albarn, who, after a few decades of roving rock-star life, is still spry and charismatic, his voice a marvel of conversational British punk.
At one point, Albarn noted that he first came to Chicago in 1990, an event that probably predated the existence of half the people in the audience. He also repeatedly expressed his fondness for the city’s musical history—as exemplified by local openers Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (descendants of the late Phil Cohran), who returned to help perform Plastic Beach’s “Broken.” And while Albarn repeatedly retreated to piano or guitar, ceding center stage to each of the many guests who performed with him, he remained the focal point. The show ended with him standing in a messianic pose, bidding the audience adieu like any other rock star who’s forced to return to their home planet. He even growled a few times at his massive band, still obviously working out some of the kinks at the tour’s outset, for flubbing transitions. All of which may point to why Gorillaz have ditched the cartoons: It’s hard to create a sense of spontaneity when you’re busy synching up to a bunch of holograms.
Of course, a lot of this is just a further refinement of that aforementioned Plastic Beach framework, which was an uneasy compromise. Animator Jamie Hewlett didn’t like seeing his cartoons minimized onstage, which helped lead to the band’s long hiatus. . For a while that seemed to be Gorillaz’s final, career-ending rift. But for now, at least, they’ve worked things out by bifurcating the vision. The cartoons live online—and through whatever short-form episodic fiction Hewlett is said to be working on—while the live performers do the, well, live performances. This makes about as much sense as it’s ever going to; a cartoon band is kind of a crazy idea, after all.
Meanwhile, it continues to yield creative dividends for Albarn, who’s amassed a slate of good songs to pull from—including the new tracks from Humanz, whose endless intensity proved a bit fatiguing on record, but all sounded better live. And despite their obvious love of Gorillaz’s make-believe world, the crowd was still elated; while they probably would’ve loved, say, a bespoke interlude on the whereabouts of Noodle or something, at the end of the day, they were here to see the band’s songs performed loudly and with as much real life as possible. Fiction would’ve only gotten in the way of that.