Little about 2020 has been straightforward. So there is something perversely logical in the prospect of Gorillaz – a half-real, half-virtual band who released their best music in ages this year – playing a triumphal pre-Christmas gig with various layers of reality cavorting around them.
As this live stream begins, up pops not Damon Albarn, the musical half of the core Gorillaz partnership, but Robert Smith from the Cure. Backlit, he sings straight to camera, intoning about “strange times” next to a customised Gorillaz golf buggy. A live band plays in the distance; Murdoc Niccals, a cartoon band member, momentarily skulks into view.
Soon, Albarn is on the scene, wearing glittery pineapple sunglasses that look like they might have been an early Christmas present from Elton John, singing into a palm-sized microphone, cracking Smith up so much Smith rewards him with a kittenish hiss, the kind not seen since the Cure’s Lovecats video. On the next track, The Valley of the Pagans, a hologram of Beck dances around.
Albarn plays the keytar and the band – featuring double drummers, a percussionist and six backing vocalists – get stuck into Gorillaz’s funk-leaning set.
It’s surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief, sit back and lap up this not-a-band, playing uncategorisable tunes from their not-an-album, in the company of avatars and distant cheering crew members, unseen until the end. Key personnel have been in a bubble for weeks building up to this series of live shows broadcast to three time zones, of which the UK edition is the climax.
The set focuses hard on Song Machine, Season One, the latest Gorillaz wheeze in which a staticky TV would spit out a tune roughly once a month via YouTube (Covid permitting). The October compilation of these tracks, and more – subtitled Strange Timez – was, perversely, cheerier and sweeter than previous Gorillaz records, in which Albarn’s horror at Brexit and the election of Trump (Humanz, 2017) or environmental desecration (Plastic Beach, 2010) was transmuted into party music “for the end of the world”.
Tonight, some of Song Machine’s finest cuts remain vivid, even without their physical guests in the room – like the tender Pink Phantom. But some songs make even more of an impact than previously.
The disco-leaning The Lost Chord gains in heft thanks to the mighty real falsetto of Leee John, once of 80s Britfunk band Imagination. There are, theoretically, bigger names in this imaginary studio basement tonight, but John steals the show, sashaying his way through a song hymning freedom.
The success of this live stream probably depends on the viewer’s tolerance for projections – hologram fatigue does set in – and how much fans have invested in the Gorillaz world. It is, really, two worlds: that in which Albarn ropes very disparate people into making ear-catching genre soup, and that in which Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon characters explore their own lore in the band’s videos.
The set is true to cartoonist Hewlett’s gleeful style. Boxes labelled things like INNATE RASHES litter the stage, with floor space taken up by Gorillaz paraphernalia. A Christmas tree has a giant electric inverted cross on top. Periodically, animations take over. Funniest of all is the ghost-blob from The Pink Phantom video, which zigzags around the screen like a demented squid.
But it’s really Albarn’s gig. More than 20 years ago, flatmates Albarn and Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl and other comics) came up with Gorillaz as a vehicle in which the former Blur singer didn’t have to be a frontman, a set-up where a white guy from London’s hinterland could collaborate with the US rappers and producers he loved. It’s been years since Gorillaz hid behind screens. Albarn has even made Gorillaz albums in which he took centre stage. But tonight Albarn is in full-on frontman mode, mastering ceremonies, getting in the camera’s face and blowing air horns.
Increasingly, too, Gorillaz have taken on the population density of Albarn’s other massive project, Africa Express – one whose live jams have crammed as many musicians on to a stage as possible. On top of this 14-strong “Gorilla Exprezz” band there are 10 corporeal guests, ranging from the celebrated grime MC Kano (authoritative on Dead Butterflies) to the splendidly camp actor Matt Berry who, robed, reads out the apocalyptic parable from an older track, Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head.
One of the very best musical moments finds drummer Georgia – a guest on Aries, one of the night’s biggest tunes – working up a sweat in front of Gorillaz live drummer Femi Koleoso, who usually drives the jazz outfit Ezra Collective. If Aries ends with Peter Hook (New Order) holding up his bass like a vanquished foe, the collective vibes are most triumphant at the very close.
Genre cross-pollination is now so common as to barely register as noteworthy, but back in 2001, Clint Eastwood, Gorillaz’s ska-tinged, hip-hop-adjacent signature tune, benefited from a sped-up remix from garage producer Ed Case. That “refix” starred London dancehall MC Sweetie Irie, who bosses this messy, hectic grand finale, in which pogoing members of Slaves and rapper Slowthai lose their shirts. Despite their many international inflections, Gorillaz still feel like a solidly British success story, one whose vision of reality is pretty unclouded. Collaboration is an exalted state, and reality can be manipulated for the good.