After a six-year hiatus, singer/songwriter/producer Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett have reunited to bring us a new Gorillaz album, and the band has now embarked on their first tour since 2010. Not known for touring heavily, this would be only the third time Gorillaz have toured in Canada over the near twenty years they’ve been around, and would be many fans’ long awaited first time seeing them perform live. Gorillaz are of course an animated/virtual band made up of fictional characters (2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel), and the technology hasn’t always been there to make a live show including both the animated characters and the musicians behind them as epic as it should be, while still affordable.
Kicking off The Humanz Tour in Chicago this past weekend, Gorillaz performed just the second show of the world tour in Toronto on Monday night. While many fans (including myself) bought in on the nostalgia for their older work, Gorillaz participated in a promotion a few bands have used this year, where a free copy of the new album (Humanz) came with every concert ticket bought first-hand from Ticketmaster. There were no excuses for not being familiar with the new tunes.
One cool thing about Gorillaz is they can’t be boxed into any genre. Damon Albarn may be known for making rock music as the lead singer of Blur, but with Gorillaz he delves into funk, pop, EDM, Hip-Hop, and even a little reggae. They attract fans of all genres, but for Hip-Hop heads, their biggest moments were probably getting De La Soul a Grammy Award for the song “Feel Good Inc.,” and Del The Funky Homosapien his biggest hit with “Clint Eastwood.” That latter track was one of the first songs that got me into Hip-Hop as a preteen, and I remember spending hours as a kid exploring the Gorillaz’ animated universe through their website. There would be a little Hip-Hop to start things off before Gorillaz got on stage.
While Damon Albarn has dozens of artists collaborating with him on every Gorillaz album, the opener for this leg of the tour would be Vince Staples, who appears on track two of the new album (other cities will get Danny Brown, who also appears on Humanz). Vince himself is also celebrating the release of a new album, his sophomore Big Fish Theory, which is still less than a month old. This would be my first time seeing Vince Staples perform, although I’ve followed him since his standout guest appearances on Earl Sweatshirt’s 2013 album Doris.
Vince got the show started right around 8pm, while the crowd was still slowly entering the Air Canada Centre, and he had the building shaking with his opening track “Party People.” Even sitting all the way up in the nosebleeds, you could feel that bass just hit you in the face. I found that Vince’s production was much improved on the new album, and this was evident as he performed several of the new tracks including “745,” “Big Fish,” “Homage” and “Yeah Right.” The large screen behind him gave him a bright orange backdrop as he sliced through his verses and delivered an energetic 45-minute set.
There was a bit of a break for Damon and his large ensemble to set up, but pretty soon Vince Staples came back out to get the Gorillaz set started with their collaborative song, “Ascension.” The fans on the floor started an all-out dance party, while the ones up top got to take in some of the cool animations playing on the large screen behind the band. Both old and new fans got to jam out, as Gorillaz alternated between vintage throwbacks and new joints off Humanz, going from “Last Living Souls” to the Popcaan-assisted “Saturnz Barz,” to “Tomorrow Comes Today” and maybe my favourite off the new album, “Charger.” While the guests on these songs weren’t there in person, you could see animated figures on the big screen singing their pre-recorded vocals.
They continued with the Plastic Beach single “Rhinestone Eyes” before Damon really got to shine with his solo single as 2-D, “Sleeping Powder.” After nailing his vocals consistently throughout the night, Damon got some help from the second guest to join him on stage, Kilo Kish, who covered Noodle’s vocals on the throwback “19-2000.” Gorillaz then put a strong focus on Humanz, performing several songs off the new album. They did the groovy “Sex Murder Party” with Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz joining Damon on stage for their vocals, and “She’s My Collar” with Kali Uchis appearing on the big screen (side note: Kali is touring on her own and will be hitting the Danforth Music Hall in September).
Damon mellowed out the crowd with the slow, vocal-centric song “Busted and Blue,” with the backup singers getting to shine and everyone in the crowd lighting up their cell phones as they swayed to the track. This transitioned nicely into the Demon Dayz single “El Manana,” before the energy picked up again with more new joints including “Strobelite,” “Andromeda” and “We Got The Power.” Peven Everett came out on stage to slay his guest vocals, while Little Simz got to spit a rap verse on the closing track.
The band left the stage, but the fans knew the show was far from over. After a strong chant for an encore, Gorillaz returned to the stage and kicked some energy into the building with a fun performance of “Stylo.” The encore performance was all throwbacks, as they did “Kids With Guns” before Damon played the opening notes from the classic “Clint Eastwood.” Once that iconic drum hit, the entire crowd sang along to the chorus with Damon, as the memorable music video played in the background, and Vince Staples and Little Simz came back out to freestyle some rap verses in place of Del’s. Gorillaz then closed out the show with a mellow performance of the last two songs off of Demon Dayz, “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven” along with the title track.
Overall, it was great to finally see Gorillaz perform live after over a decade of waiting for some fans. It was difficult to make out each of the band members from the nosebleeds, but the fans on the floor got to see up close how dynamic each musician on that stage was, as they moved seamlessly between all the different styles Gorillaz have adopted over the years. There were fans of all ages in the crowd, and as an older head I found that while the performance brought a new energy to the songs off the new album, there were still some things left to be desired.
One big gap for me was that Gorillaz never performed their greatest hit, “Feel Good Inc.” Also the decision to freestyle over “Clint Eastwood” rather than cover Del’s classic verses kind of took away from the performance (although seeing Deltron 3030 perform it a few years ago made the pain easier to bear). That being said, it was still a fun time, as Gorillaz were able to cover a fair amount of classics for the older fans while still pushing the new album while it’s fresh. The world tour is just getting started, and it seems Gorillaz will have plenty of surprises in store for each city!
Special shoutout to Maesha Ahmed for providing some photos from the floor level! Follow her on Instagram @mf.moosh
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