Gorillaz | Live review

Roundhouse, London

With a minimum of 15 hominid players onstage tonight, Gorillaz have miraculously de-evolved from a virtual pop concept into a monster live band. The last time Gorillaz played out in Manchester five years ago it was as a much smaller band, hidden behind screens and dwarfed by holograms of the cartoon Gorillaz – notional leader 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodles and drummer Russel Hobbs (who presumably monopolised the backstage toaster).

Tonight, videos and filmic animations play out on a wide screen at the rear; the band's name is writ large in coloured lights. However visually arresting Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett's graphics are (and they are mostly terrific), all the multimedia monkeying around is ultimately upstaged by the buoyant thrum of flesh-and-blood musicianship. Concerned principally with their latest and best album, Plastic Beach, not all of Gorillaz's set list impresses tonight. But the faultless, rubbery, propulsive groove constructed by this vast crew in nautical garb is Gorillaz's greatest revelation.

Gorillaz's only constant musician is, of course, Damon Albarn. Once of Blur, now a scorer of Chinese operas, Albarn also operates as a sort of one-man British Council, gathering up musicians from various continents and plonking them on stages together. Gorillaz fans may have originally been won over by the notion of a cartoon rock band playing hip-hop a decade ago, but now, Gorillaz live more closely resembles one of Albarn's Africa Express nights.

Two drummers, three keyboard players (including Albarn on piano), a seven-piece all-female string section and four backing singers are joined by new guitarist Jeff Wootton. His reputed next job – as Liam Gallagher's guitarist – would raise eyebrows, were it not for the mini-Clash reunion book-ending the stage.

Bassist Paul Simonon gangles stage right, looking suitably piratical. His depth-charge basslines may be augmented by electronics, but they are still powerful enough to sculpt ear wax. Mick Jones, meanwhile, plays first-mate rhythm guitar stage left, grinning broadly. In the aftermath of the Clash, Jones formed a band with punk film-maker Don Letts. Tonight, Gorillaz share considerable DNA with that band, Big Audio Dynamite, mashing up pop, electronics and visuals, but substituting rappers and grime MCs for BAD's reggae bent. "Kids with Guns", Gorillaz's hit from 2006, sounds particularly Dynamite.

That's the band. Then there are the guests, real and virtual, sublime and ridiculous. Dressed as ship's captain, West Coast gangsta rapper-turned-family entertainer Snoop Dogg presides over an introductory "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach", mugging down from the video screen. Apparently, Albarn and Hewlett have never met him, having conducted the video direction over Skype. Even more amusing is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it visual cameo of Lou Reed, drawn by Hewlett as a kamikaze submarine pilot on the graphics accompanying "On Melancholy Hill" (Gorillaz don't actually play his song, "Some Kind of Nature").

Gorillaz audiences can now take appearances by De La Soul for granted. Flanked by another rapper, conscious elder statesman Mos Def, soul survivor Bobby Womack is, however, welcomed like a conquering hero when he takes part in a terrific "Stylo". Anecdotes state that Womack, a diabetic, passed out during his Plastic Beach recording sessions and was revived with a banana. His blood sugar is in great form tonight, allowing Womack to bay righteously on "Stylo", and croon on a moving set finale, "Cloud of Unknowing".

Other contributors are less impressive. It's nice to see him still singing and wearing shades at the same time, but Shaun Ryder harrumphs his way ineffectually through "DARE". Little Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano is drowned out by the band, providing little to so-so songs like "Empire Ants".

Albarn blows hot and cold too. He is ringmaster and cheerleader, pounding on a piano at the back, then leaping to sing the bulk of Gorillaz's songs. Somehow, his way with words is never quite as riveting as the body of work playing out around him. Two songs in, Damon's "Last Living Souls" threatens to dampen the mood of adventure; his encore duet with Little Dragon, "To Binge", is forgettable.

Albarn dreamed up Gorillaz as a response to Blur's Britpop-era stardom. You suspect he wanted to see if it were possible to have the music, and the success, without any of the more tiresome celebrity duties. Gorillaz may not have been the first multimedia pop experience (they are the lovechild of the Archies and U2's Zooropa, arguably) but its success certainly vindicated him. Albarn continued to sublimate his own presence on projects like Mali Music and Africa Express. But last year's triumphal Blur reunion seems to have reignited his inner rock star. The abiding memory of this extraordinary night is not of Albarn as frontman, however. Instead it is of the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music together with MCs Bashy and Kano performing an electrifying version of "White Flag". As the enormous white flag he is waving refuses to unfurl, Albarn can be found at the back of the stage, laughing.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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