The last night of a tour often has a reckless, demob flavour to it, and the denouement to Gorillaz’s live rendering of Humanz – an album already cast as “a party for the end of the world” – is no exception. During an all-star rendition of We Got the Power, Blur guitarist Graham Coxon tosses his guitar high into the air, narrowly avoiding clouting Noel Gallagher, inches away from him.
Albarn and his former Oasis arch-rival have been pals for some time, of course – abetted, perhaps, by their shared guitarist, Jeff Wootton, a manic mohicanned presence at the right of the stage tonight. But the frisson of seeing bits of Oasis and Blur plying their wares in unison on the “Hollywood ending” – as Albarn has called it – from Humanz’s “dark dystopian fantasy” remains just one of the many draws of this monumental live undertaking. (A Liam-esque Murdoc occasionally glares down from above.)
As two drummers, six gospel singers, a string section, two keyboard players and a core band grind it out on stage, you can only imagine the watercooler moments going on backstage: The Selecter’s Pauline Black potentially gargling prosecco with MC Little Simz, arguably the star of the night with her Garage Palace; Gallagher trading witticisms with Shaun Ryder (later on Dare), as the American hip-hop contingent compare notes across coasts and generations.
De La Soul are tour mainstays, as is 2017 man of the moment Vince Staples. The latter is on savage form on Ascension, one of the more explicitly political songs tonight. “This the land of the free,” Staples rhymes of the US, “where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap/ Where you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me.”
Ice-cold former Clipse rapper Pusha T is equally coruscating on the doom-laden Let Me Out, assisted by Mavis Staples on the big screen. With a Kanye-produced album on the way, Pusha is now also a record company exec, who might be in a position to get Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on to a project.
Not long after Coxon throws caution to the wind, Albarn goes walkabout in the crowd on the menacing oldie Kids With Guns. Performers can safely slap some arena palm from the shelter of the photographer’s pit, but the sweaty Albarn goes through the middle of the standing crush – a level of fluid exchange rare with stars of this magnitude.
Here, the frontman is Damon-from-Blur, who emerged from Britpop as a renaissance man, juggling bands (there is another the Good, the Bad and the Queen album in the works), operas about medieval magicians and Chinese monkeys, and collaborative west African supergroups. If anything, tonight’s huge rotating cast recalls Albarn’s Africa Express live free-for-alls, with Albarn frequently on keytars and haunting 2 Tone-era melodica.
To the rest of the world, however, Albarn is the mastermind behind a cartoon conceit that hit the US hard. In their primary guise, Gorillaz – drawn by Jamie Hewlett – began as a dystopian squad whose pointedly mixed ethnicities and genders, and engrossing visual universe, appealed to multiple sectors of the listening public. (Another ensemble graphic undertaking, the reinvigorated Marvel Universe films, was not far away.) Avatars allowed Albarn – a white guy from Colchester – to make hip-hop and funk without being sneered at. It helped immensely that they could summon huge names (Snoop Dogg, passim) and cult figures to front the songs, and that Gorillaz’s tunes were often monstrous. Stylo, from 2010’s Plastic Beach, is reliably gargantuan, with veteran dance music vocalist Peven Everett bawling in the late Bobby Womack’s stead.
Humanz marked the reunion of Albarn and Hewlett after a bromantic bust-up and, if there is one downside to this otherwise triumphal night out, it is that the visual side of Gorillaz is strong, but somehow underwhelming. New-ish pixelated versions of 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel appear on a tilting disc overhead. But as stunning as Hewlett’s animations are, projecting videos on screens is commonplace nowadays. You do wonder why Hewlett doesn’t even get to play the triangle, or take a bow, in this vast rogues’ gallery of creativity.
Tonight, in a massive set that spans lesser-heard moments from their four albums and bangers, it’s the funk that really stuns. The magnificent Strobelite is one of the tracks that travels the furthest from Colchester. Featuring Albarn on the melodica, and lines like “Are we obsidian?” delivered in the soulful tones of Everett, it rocks the house.