A “party for the end of the world” is what many-faced music legend Damon Albarn claimed he sought to illustrate for his fifth Gorillaz album Humanz—and not only did collaborator Pusha T remark at Albarn’s eerie hunch that Donald Trump would be elected before anyone in music thought it possible, but we also found out this week that the Las Vegas shooter rented a room overlooking last month’s Life is Beautiful festival, which Gorillaz headlined. Last night at the Forum in Los Angeles, with a career-spanning exhibition of Jamie Hewlett’s brilliant visuals behind them and a phalanx of star guest vocalists, Albarn and his excellent band made it clear that even in the worst of times, music still inspires.
Vince Staples opened the show to a peculiarly cold audience for having collaborated with the headliner and representing his nearby home city of Long Beach, probably due to a strangely early set time of 7:30 p.m. Still, the ominous bottom end of “745” through the arena sound system and other electric tracks from this year’s Big Fish Theory swept the fans in the building, and in any case, his best moment would come later in the night.
Having once honored the “virtual band” concept of Gorillaz so strictly that performances would feature he and his touring band obscured in silhouette by a backlit screen, the Humanz tour is more of a blasé acknowledgement that, yes, there are real humans behind the cartoons, and so Albarn stumbled on stage wearing his grey tee and beer belly with an ageless, Johnny Rotten–esque pride in his strut. There is no neglect on extravagance from the touring band, however; bassist Seye Adelekan with his red beret and matchstick jeans, and guitarist Jeff Wootton with his mohawk and Flying Vee made for presences even more animated than their cartoon counterparts at times. Behind them are two drummers (one acoustic and one electronic) and a line of six back-up singers that made the many group chants of Gorillaz’s choruses heavenly in person. And, behind them are the animations of the real band: 2-D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle.
The arena rumbled with screams upon the opening note of each song, and barreled through what seemed like a “best of” collection in the first quarter of their set, including “Last Living Souls” and “Rhinestone Eyes.” And if you feared the show would be congested with casual fans standing around waiting for the hits, you’d be shocked to discover that Gorillaz’s Comic Con–level base of dedicated fanatics on the floor; this is certainly the first and last time I will ever hear thousands wail with excitement for a melodica solo, until the next time I see Albarn perform “Tomorrow Comes Today.”
If the synthpop madness of Humanz didn’t quite make sense on record, the Forum is where it truly came flourishing to life, the fertile grounds of Los Angeles allowing for the majority of the many featured vocalists on the album to appear. All guest songs occupied the middle of the set consecutively, beginning with Pusha T, who stunned with his verses on “Let Me Out,” followed by Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown for “Dirty Harry.” The stage turned black for a second, and when the lights came back Vince Staples had reappeared for “Ascension,” his exhilaratingly bleak lyrics igniting the crowd like no song beforehand had. D.R.A.M., Peven Everett, Jamie Principle, and De La Soul also took the stage for their respective Gorillaz tracks. Rising star Kilo Kish bounced across the stage in a ball gown made entirely of pink ruffles for “Out of Body” alongside Zebra Katz, but the unexpected highlight guest performance of the night was Little Simz, whose swift verses on Humanz bonus track “Garage Palace” put the more mainstream rappers of the show to shame. To close the pre-encore set, Jehnny Beth of Savages came to sing “We Got the Power,” leaping into the crowd within minutes. The set makes it obvious why Albarn chose each of them, both mainstream and underground, for his apocalypse celebration.
“It seems like every week… the world gets… slightly crazier,” said Albarn in an unprepared encore speech before he started a brand new, country-tinged song that he and the Gorillaz touring band wrote impromptu called “Idaho” (written after a weekend off tour in the state of Idaho in which they visited Bruce Willis’s house). Next came “Stylo,” featuring singer Peven Everett covering for the late Bobby Womack’s part, doing his raspy high notes profound justice, and a man named Arthur that Albarn introduced as an old friend of Womack’s playing hypeman in a full military Ghillie suit (the kind that looks like a full tree of shrubs), topped with more firey mid-song raps from Bootie Brown. Through the mesmerizing creations Albarn, Hewlett, and their collaborators deliver, the truest beauty of it is that none of them seem to be taking it at all seriously.
Of all appearances, none induced chills like De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove when he arrived on stage and bellowed his signature cackle to start “Feel Good Inc.,” except, perhaps afterwards when the first four cymbal smashes of “Clint Eastwood” launched the floor into hysterics. As Albarn brought the melodica back out for the chorus, Del the Funky Homosapien walked up for his iconic role as the formidable primate, and Hewlett’s legendary video from 2001 played behind them, I realized I was so enveloped in the Gorillaz splendor of this year alone that I’d forgotten they’ve been offering the coolest sounds and visuals to us millennials since we started elementary school.
Words: Jamie Lawlor
Photography: Wes Marsala
More Photos of Gorillaz at The Forum