Growing up I used to watch a lot of old music shows on TV with my mum. Whenever artists like David Bowie, Neil Young or the Faces were shown performing in their seventies pomp, she was rather fond of saying the phrase ‘I was there, I was that soldier.’
I’ve had a few such moments of my own in the 20 or so years I’ve been watching live music, but it’s been a while since I had an ‘I was there’ concert. Thanks then to the Gorillaz for providing one of those moments at the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night.
I think I sufficiently articulated my excitement about the opportunity to see Damon Albarn play live again back in August when this concert was announced. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how much of an ensemble performance Gorillaz were capable of offering. When artists talk about guest collaborators and huge numbers of musicians on stage it’s rarely a precursor to great music – more a sign of big budgets and prog-tastic ostentatiousness.
Then again, most ensemble casts don’t include half of The Clash. There is something indescribably thrilling about the sight of Paul Simonon and Mick Jones prowling the stage wearing matching naval uniforms and handling their guitars like rifles. The vision of them standing like Russian guards, flanking Albarn as he stood poised with his melodica for the intro to Clint Eastwood was worth the entrance fee alone, let alone their incredible musical contribution. The Clash were amongst London’s first celebrity champions of reggae and Simonon’s bass makes a smooth arc from the Clash’s Guns of Brixton to Gorillaz’ first dub-influenced single Tomorrow Comes Today – whose vibrations shook the huge tennis arena.
Those familiar with the Gorillaz albums will know the calibre of their other collaborators, many of whom were present either on screen (Snoop Dogg resplendent in naval gangster chic) or in the flesh. De La Soul’s contribution to the party was far larger than their two recorded offerings suggest. As warm up band they go down in history as the only hip hop act to ever actually make me put my arms in the air (like I did not care) and as part of the show their exuberance and clearly reciprocated affection for Albarn was uplifting.
Turns from Bobby Womack, Little Dragon, the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown, Bashy and Kano bring the Gorillaz songs to life whilst contributions of a string section (who knew cellos, sailor caps and LBDs was such a sexy get-up?), Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (like the Muppets band but with more energy) and members of the Syrian National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provide the necessary tools to craft the hugely diverse songs Gorillaz have produced in their ten years together. From dub to hip hop, rock to pop, soul to gospel, techno to rap and kiddy choir, there are elements of everything in the show, with Albarn’s enthusiasm and ability unbounding for them all.
The show was so heavy on hits that it seems unfair to highlight individual tracks but Glitter Freeze, Stylo, 19-2000, Feel Good Inc and Dirty Harry nearly blew the roof off, Punk offered a welcome sight of 1992 era Albarn doing his knee-tuck in leap for 90 seconds, On Melancholy Hill made me cry – and finishing with the church-choir singalong of Demon Days was just lush.
Gorillaz are often derided amongst musos for their cartoon origins, as if comic books somehow infantilise and devalue the music. I suspect such critics haven’t seen Gorillaz live, where Jamie Hewlett’s blend of the macabre and the beautiful creates something funny and frequently poignant (the sight of a windmill-powered flying island being attacked and grounded by sinister helicopter gunships during El Mañana a case in point). The graphic evolution of Murdoc, Russel, 2D and Noodle – with a slightly naff but amazingly detailed computer animation of the band in their dressing room punctuating the night – is also fascinating, especially watching the simplicity of the original video to Clint Eastwood.
Regardless of my own predilection towards all things Albarn, it’s hard not to feel pleased for the lad. Tonight’s show is a collaboration – and one that only works when all the players work together - but it is also a testament to the boy from Blur’s talents. From what was presumably a very stoned pre-Millennium night in Hewlett’s flat he has assembled his own version of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party - a globe straddling, multi-headed genre shagging colossus that is too brilliant to ignore and too smart to disappear up its own arse. If, as is rumoured, Gorillaz calls it quite after the end of this tour - and after they release one last album online on Christmas Day – it’ll be the right thing to do. Still at least I’ll be able to tell my mum I was there. For once, I was that soldier.