It has been fascinating to witness the evolution of Damon Albarn’s iconic “virtual band” Gorillaz over the better part of two decades, musically, lyrically, conceptually. What began as a commentary on the lack of substance on MTV—I can only imagine what Albarn thinks now—has expanded to explore issues personal, political, and environmental, using both the conceit of a cartoon musical act and the shape-shifting textures of hip-hop and electronic music to lend such heady subjects a deceptively danceable accessibility. This evolution also informs the project’s live translation, which on paper could conceivably present a challenge. And this is all before considering recent release The Now Now’s relative simplicity compared to its predecessors’ complexity and ambition. On Albarn’s visit to the Wells Fargo Center earlier this week, he did his best to not only reconcile the newer Now material with the rest of his repertoire, but his animated avatars with the living breathing people behind them.
The solution, apparently, was to throw a big party on stage that was merely accented by actual animation. The presence of 2-D, Noodle, and the rest of the gang were mostly relegated to archival music video footage that projected behind Albarn and a 12 piece band. Said band was, in fact, far more animated. Guitarist Jeff Wooten, keyboard player Mike Smith and bassist Seth Adelekan all but attacked their instruments as their bodies flailed with St. Vitas spontaneity. Albarn himself was an impressively dynamic presence, more deliberate in his dancing but also more interactive as he occasionally ventured out into the transfixed crowd.
The party also included several guests. House legend Jamie Principle appeared to bring the same soulful slinkiness to recent single “Hollywood” that he brought on record. The underrated Peven Everett was on deck for his Humanz highlight “Strobelite” as well as a fun fill in, along with Bootie Brown, for Bobby Womack and Mos Def of Plastic Beach’s “Stylo”. Best of all was the inclusion of the immortal De La Soul in the festivities. The longtime collaborators gave the evergreen banger “Feel Good Inc.” a barnstorming ferocity that leveled the arena. Other highlights included an exquisite early rendition of “On Melancholy Hill”, still the closest Albarn has come to besting Blur with this project, and a welcome if inevitable encore of “Clint Eastwood”, though no one dared to try replicating Del the Funky Homosapien’s pre-recorded magic on that one.
There was a different kind of magic being performed on stage all the same, during that moment and throughout the evening. It was a special showcase of just how far this initially sardonic lark has gone in 18 years to become something sincere, and how the artifice, once so instrumental, now seemed supplemental, if only for the moment or for this audience. This Now Now was a moment worth celebrating and remembering.
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