Photo by Mark Hall
The days when Gorillaz performed behind a projection screen are over. The novelty of a virtual band playing real songs has passed, perhaps mainly because Gorillaz founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett seem to have tired of it. In recent years, Hewlett has spoken about an evolution of the Gorillaz’s movement away from the virtual band idea and toward a vision of Gorillaz as collective of sorts—“an organisation of people doing new projects,” as Hewlett told The Observer.
This nuanced transformation is largely unimportant to fans of the band’s music. And though Hewlett bemoaned his growing loathe of drawing the animated characters—2D, Noodle, Murdoc and Russel—that have been the faces of the band, the Gorillaz returned in March with the inventive Plastic Beach.
Plastic Beach is an intricate and thoroughly modern pop album featuring a broad range of collaborators, from the exotic sounds of the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, to the decidedly non-exotic Lou Reed.
But as Gorillaz evolve from cartoon character façades to an “organization” of collaborators, the issue of the live performance has yet to be completely ironed out.
Case in point, the band’s recent “Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour” performance at Madison Square Garden, opened with “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” a song that features Snoop Dogg, who was present in video form only.
During shows on this tour it can be difficult to choose between watching Hewlett’s mesmerizing animations projected on the four-story screen above and behind the band, and watching Albarn and company’s in-the-flesh cavorting on stage. The choice is made more difficult by the nearly constant “cavalcade of stars” brought out one by one to perform a song or two before returning to the confines of the backstage area.
Early in the set, the guest appearances were a source of energy and excitement. Mos Def and Lou Reed had been announced as performers several days earlier, so eager concertgoers knew their arrival was just a matter of time. But as the show wore on, the near constant swapping out of collaborators added variety at the cost of both continuity and momentum.
Albarn, whose role occasionally seemed to be that of variety show host, worked all sides of the stage—sitting at the keyboard for some songs, standing at the mic for others—as his simultaneously upbeat and morose songs worked their magic on the Garden crowd.
The charismatic Mos Def, performing “Stylo” with Bobby Womack early in the set and the pulsing, energetic “Sweepstakes” later, displayed his ability to entertain stadium-size audiences. Veteran collaborators De La Soul were expectedly solid, skillfully trading lines on Beach’s poppy anti-consumerist “Superfast Jellyfish.” (How Albarn reconciles these views with selling $30 T-shirts at the merch table is unclear.)
The unveiling of Hewlett’s fantastic illustration of a Gorilla-ized Lou Reed—ingesting a bowl of electric guitar cables as if they were ramen noodles—drew the hometown crowd into a frenzy and shouts of “Lou!” However, it must be said that Reed’s performance of “Some Kind of Nature” fell short of expectations. Visibly bothered by the audio mix in his monitors for the better part of the song, Reed was unable to muster the cool delivery of one of Plastic Beach’s best tracks.
On this night it seemed that for every great performance (Demon Days’ “Last Living Souls” was particularly stellar) there was a corresponding odd duck (Albarn’s karaoke-inspired duet with Yukimi Nagano of the band Little Dragon on “To Binge,” for example).
The show never quite generated a full head of steam until the powerful encore, with “Feel Good Inc.”—that dangled carrot—finally getting the capacity crowd to a fever pitch.
In the end, as with all-star engagements in many fields, the players never quite clicked, and the great expectations created by the distinguished list of performers was never fully realized in the performance itself.