Gorillaz review – Damon Albarn refuses to be pigeonholed in hip-hop jamboree

Brighton Centre
The Blur frontman brings his animated band’s world tour to the UK, and it’s the house vocalists – such as Peven Everett and Jamie Principle – that really shine

The first Gorillaz tour in seven years is an event that arrives in Britain trailing a certain degree of hype. It is apparently the fastest-selling tour that Damon Albarn has been involved in: not even the re-formation of Blur shifted tickets around the world so quickly, testament perhaps to the fact that, initially at least, Gorillaz achieved the kind of multiplatinum success in the US denied to Albarn’s original outfit. There has been much talk of the vast, continually rotating cast involved: in addition to Albarn, a band that features in its ranks two drummers and six backing vocalists, there’s the ever-changing menu of guest stars to contend with. Over the course of its American leg, the Humanz tour variously featured appearances from Carly Simon, Kelela, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Yasiin Bey, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and Savages’ Jehnny Beth, while last weekend’s shows in Paris brought Popcaan to the stage for an encore of Saturnz Barz.

Tonight, however, the Jamaican MC is merely on a big screen at the rear of the stage, while Chicago brass bands and indie frontwomen are noticeable by their absence. The supporting cast is stripped down to something approaching a skeleton staff: depending on your taste in hip-hop, the biggest names present are either Long Beach rapper Vince Staples or two-thirds of De La Soul, the latter performing a rapturously received version of Feel Good Inc. The visuals featuring Jamie Hewlett’s familiar animated figures are strong, but not quite as eye-poppingly innovative as the show’s excitable advance billing might have led you to believe – amid the synched videos and interstitial cartoons, there’s nothing quite as visually arresting as the moment during their 2005 shows when the children’s choir who sang on Dirty Harry unexpectedly broke first into synchronised dance moves, then gleeful body-popping.

Damon Albarn at Brighton Centre
Crestfallen-sounding melodies … Damon Albarn. Photograph: Julie Edwards/Avalon.Red

But the lack of big-name guests is something of a blessing, because it shines a light on Albarn’s less glitzy collaborators. Best-known (if he’s known at all) as the voice on Roy Davis Jr’s peerless 90s house track Gabriel, Peven Everett is faced not merely with performing superb recent single Strobelite – its sonic debt to early 80s boogie underscored by the sight of Albarn accompanying him on that most early 80s of instruments, the keytar – but the more unenviable task of filling in for the late Bobby Womack’s vocal on Stylo, famously an improvised performance of such intensity that it caused Womack to pass out in the studio. But Everett sounds fantastic: his voice is simultaneously potent and vulnerable. Chicago house legend Jamie Principle is in good enough voice to avoid being upstaged by rapper Zebra Katz on Sex Murder Party, a not inconsiderable feat given that Zebra Katz is a towering presence clad in a silver jumpsuit, who spends the song sashaying across the front of the stage like a finalist in RuPaul’s Drag Race. But the most striking guest might be Little Simz, an adventurous British rapper yet to cross over from cult success to mainstream popularity. Her star turn, Garage Palace, was relegated to track 31 of the super-deluxe edition of Humanz, but tonight it comes thrillingly alive, an urgent, hammering kick drum overlaid with vocals increasingly swamped in dubby echo effects.

Garage Palace is bookended by Sex Murder Party’s lithe electronic funk and Punk’s scrappy guitar thrash, evidence, should you need it, of both how uncommercial a lot of Gorillaz’s output is – doom-laden versions of Kids With Guns and Last Living Souls highlight that even some of their best-known material is surprisingly short on obvious hooks – and of the vast musical distance Albarn has sought to cover under the Gorillaz banner. Indeed, the sheer eclecticism of their output occasionally makes for a slightly disjointed live experience, that lurches without warning from hip-hop to acoustic balladry to house music to the impossibly beautiful old B-side Hong Kong, lavishly bedecked with what sounds like a Chinese zither. The only real linking factor between them is Albarn’s voice, and his tendency to crestfallen-sounding melodies.

But if it’s sometimes slightly jarring, it’s equally hard not to be impressed by the unbridled diversity on offer. Indeed, behind the invented scenarios that are supposed to inform the concepts behind their albums – tonight’s visuals lean heavily on the eco-catastrophe of 2010’s Plastic Beach and the apocalyptic panic of Humanz – that seems to be the real story of Gorillaz: it’s the sound of an artist who spent the first part of his career being pigeonholed, and the remainder behaving in a way that meant pigeonholing him was impossible.

• At the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 29 November. Box office: 0844-395 4000. Then touring.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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