Gorillaz/N.E.R.D. at Key Arena, Seattle, WA 11.02.10
On paper, the idea of Gorillaz may seem a little hokey. Successful rock star (Damon Albarn of Blur) and successful comic book artist (Jamie Hewlett of Tank Girl) combine forces to create the world's first virtual band, mashing together the world of rock and roll fandom and comic geekdom into an entirely parallel universe of four animated weirdos who've joined forces to make music and have adventures. However, what these two created nearly 12 years ago has far exceeded any sort of expectations, growing into a legitimately beautiful, creatively fertile universe that manages to float effortlessly through genres to help engineer some really unexpected results in their cross-pollination.
While a giant, fairly generic concrete box like Key Arena is a tough one to truly commandeer, Gorillaz pulled out all the stops to help transform the Key into a part of their weird, colorful universe. With a giant video screen sitting atop some equally large block letters (spelling out "GORILLAZ"), the stage was packed full of equipment before the 7-piece orchestra (a septet of nautically decked out lovely young ladies) even walked onto the stage, starting into the orchestral introduction piece to Gorillaz 2010 album, Plastic Beach. They were followed onstage by an 8-piece horn section, 2 drummers, 2 guitarists, a bass player, and 4 backup singers, and head Gorilla Damon Albarn ambling in like just another member of the band.
After an animated introduction showing the virtual Gorillaz being stuck backstage, the one and only Snoop Dogg came onto the screen above the stage, decked out in nautical gear (going along with the Plastic Beach theme of the band's most recent record) and did his best in his stoned-out, lazy drawl to serve as the welcoming committee on "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach". The video screen (likely captained by Hewlett) was treated as another member of the band, beaming in those recruits to the Gorillaz clan who couldn't make it to the show that night, and casting a bright glow over the entire arena. Guitarist Jeff Wootton (who was a dead ringer for Johnny Marr, at least from my seat) was in full-on guitar freakout mode, helping to build the end of the song from a shuffling hip-hop stroll into a totally paranoid, panic-stricken wall of guitar, weaving in and out with the horn section to create a buzzing hornet's nest of sound that built up to a sonic climax at the end. With that, the mainland was left in the distance, and we were all past the point of no return on this voyage.
And what a voyage it was. The Gorillaz catalog is a challenging, joyful, jumbled romp where the limitations are seemingly endless. When you're represented by a cartoon band who can be cyborgs or possessed by ghosts, who can explode or disintegrate at any given moment, or crash cars or fighter jets and escape unscratched, is there really any need to play it safe when it comes to musical exploration? Part of the beauty of Gorillaz is that childlike sense of wonder and unhindered exploration, and watching Albarn run around every inch of the stage and front monitors, jumping up during the explosive crashes and spastically screaming the chorus to "Last Living Souls", it felt like a wake up call to the uninspired.
As if the incredibly eclectic crowd weren't already electrified, "19-2000", with its playful sing-along chorus of "get the cool shoeshine!", came off like a traditional kids' classic in this alternate universe before leading into the tough-as-nails electro-funk of "Stylo", which found Albarn bringing out soul legend Bobby Womack to wail atop it, while video of Bruce Willis chasing down the animated band members played behind the band. It was one of those "Holy shit. Where do I look?" moments, and the only thing resembling a complaint that I could muster during the Gorillaz set; there was so much going on, between these beautifully produced, artful movies playing on stage and sometimes over 20 people on stage at any given moment, all dancing and completely rocking their corner of the stage. It was overwhelming to try to take all of it in and process exactly what was happening in all of the layers, but in the Gorillaz universe, that sense of bewilderment is likely the goal. Also, just looking on stage and seeing half of the Clash ambling around (guitarist Mick Jones as the dapper admiral, and bassist Paul Simonon as the leather-jacketed biker/sailor/rebel without a boat) was just as overwhelming to process.
"Up on Melancholy Hill" was one of the less over-the-top moments of the Gorillaz set, with Albarn finally tethering himself to one spot to play acoustic guitar (with Jones and Simonon flanking him), playing to the tender longing of one of the few more straight-forward moments of Plastic Beach. It was probably the closest thing to a nod to any of the Blur catalog that Gorillaz have done, and hearing how absolutely massive and anthemic it sounded while watching animated jellyfish floating and glowing behind the band made the song seem like a hazy, slowed-down moment of relenting clarity in the middle of a frantic firestorm.
Photos of fast food menus and bags of garbage flickered in rapid succession behind the band as they brought out De La Soul for a spin through the commercial-jingle parody of "Superfast Jellyfish", playfully stabbing at our leaning on prepackaged convenience in lieu of something with actual nutritional substance. Somehow, tossing De La Soul and the unfortunately absent Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) into a song about microwave jellyfish for breakfast doesn't come off as totally corny; yet another part of the beauty of the Gorillaz most recent work is that ability to make social commentary in a completely over-the-top way without coming off clumsily preachy.
If you would have ever told me that I would see members of Blur, the Clash, and De La Soul all on the same stage, I would have likely grabbed whatever you were drinking, thrown it in the trash, and called you a cab and a good shrink. However, it really did happen last night, and somehow it was one of the most powerful moments of a set with few (if any) weak spots. Watching De La's DJ Maseo let out a maniacal scream to kick off "Feel Good, Inc.", bound over to Clash bassist Paul Simonon with a shit-eating grin and play air bass beside him, then finish the song having a hip-hop pose off/scream off with Albarn was a refreshing blast of unadulterated joy, and a shining example of what Gorillaz is truly about; watching these strangely distant travelers come together on this Plastic Beach to collaborate on foreign soil and create something beautifully weird and new, more often than not somehow becoming greater than the sum of its respective parts.
While the set hit some of the earlier moments of the Gorillaz catalog, it was largely dominated by this year's Plastic Beach songs, and for great reason. Plastic Beach finds Albarn & Co. more playful than ever, infusing less of the drum-machine/hip-hop backbone of the first Gorillaz record and moving into a very organic, brave new world of more expansive pop. It's a record of eclectic pop based off of the notion of the animated band living on an island made of washed-up garbage, but it's by no means a fragment of the discarded material it's based on. This Plastic Beach-era Gorillaz comes off as less self-consciously un-self-aware than any of their previous records, with Albarn managing to cram more breadth into the album and still remaining just as scatter-shot as always. Thankfully, he's learned how to focus that scatter-shot a bit over the years, and seeing how feral and refined the ambitious Gorillaz have become is truly inspiring, and seeing how well-executed these ideas can be executed live makes it even moreso.
Openers N.E.R.D. had the unenviable task of trying to warm up the crowd before Gorillaz, and absolutely paled in comparison. Their set, consisting mostly of cuts from their just-released-that-day LP Nothing, sounded pleasant enough, with two drummers pushing through to add some heft to the band's backbone. However, Pharrell Williams doesn't necessarily have the singing chops to try some of the soulful Stevie Wonder-isms that he's attempting on the new material, and watching Shay Haley and the other MC slack around the stage lifelessly did nothing to propel the songs into any sort of energetic, memorable territory. A couple go-go dancers flanking the sides of the stage helped a little, but weren't enough to overcome the lazy posturing that was happening with the guys holding microphones and untethered to any instruments. Williams tried to do the whole "localized stage banter" thing, but it came off as pandering, like Williams had Googled (er, Bing'ed, due to the Microsoft "localized props") Seattle 5 minutes prior to the show. Rain, Microsoft, and the incessant mentioning of Seattle being a city of "smart people" were surely sincere attempts at winning the crowd over, but after a while of having a guy on stage tell you how smart you are after you've just been in the bathroom beside a guy who is propping himself up with the wall as he pees, you start to question the sincerity of the statement. The only moments of the set that seemed to snap into something kinetic were their last two songs (their notable singles "Rock Star" and "Lap Dance"). N.E.R.D. ran over their allotted time, and the house lights came on for the last 3-4 minutes of "Lap Dance", and Williams was admirably unflappable in his focus on running the song through an extended instrumental/rap with the people section. Knowing he likely had a less-than-pleasant interaction with a stage manager afterward, it was pretty ballsy to watch the band cut no corners on their set's final moments.
- -Orchestral Intro
- -Welcome To the World of the Plastic Beach
- -Last Living Souls
- -On Melancholy Hill
- -Rhinestone Eyes
- -Superfast Jellyfish
- -Tomorrow Comes Today
- -Empire Ants
- -Dirty Harry
- -El Manana
- -White Flag
- -To Binge
- -Glitter Freeze
- -Plastic Beach
- -Cloud of Unknowing
- -Feel Good Inc.
- -Clint Eastwood
- -Don't Get Lost In Heaven
- -Demon Days