Gorillaz Toyota Center October 19, 2010
For more photos from the show, see our slideshow here.
Gorillaz may have overspent on their first-ever extended tour. True, the entire concept is that the group is officially made up of four cartoon characters, so there kind of has to be a visual component; in the past, the live-action musicians have performed behind screens while their animated avatars took center stage, as it were.
That's not quite the way it worked out Tuesday night at a half-full Toyota Center, though.
A giant video screen showed the adventures of 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel - a desert car chase featuring Bruce Willis, a disembodied Matrix-like head, underwater escape from a pirate-besieged cruise ship, a helicopter battle in the clouds like Robotech meets Howl's Moving Castle - but as breathtaking as Jamie Hewlett's storyboards and animation were, they ultimately took a back seat to the retinue his Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn had assembled below decks.
That would be four backup vocalists, a six-woman string ensemble, two drummers, a couple of keyboard players, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash on guitar and bass, and a never-ending parade of featured performers: Chicago's Hypnotic Brass ensemble, a group of Arab-American musicians, a diva introduced only as "Rosie," UK grime stars Kano and Bashy, ex-Pharcyde MC Bootie Brown, Asian chanteuse Little Dragon, soul legend Bobby Womack and conscious-rap innovators De La Soul.
Oh, and Snoop Dogg, who kicked the whole thing off as virtual ringmaster on "Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach."
Somewhere in the middle of all that was Albarn, who had the unenviable task of steering this most motley crew through a 90-minute voyage - often, when he wasn't out front singing or rapping, from an anachronistic upright piano buried in the instrumental chaos around him.
In keeping with Gorillaz' latest album Plastic Beach, most of the onscreen animation had some sort of nautical theme, but it was ultimately much better realized in the music. First mate in this instance was Simonon, who supplied a steady throb of funk, disco and dub like he had just walked out of the Sandinista! studio yesterday, creating massive waves of rhythm for his shipmates to surf.
Ports of call included a futuristic dance club for the 25th-century soul of "Stylo"; a Bronx block party for "Superfast Jellyfish," with throat-cutting rhymes from De La Soul; the '70s for the P-Funky climax of "Empire Ants" (before that a pretty, piano-paced ballad) and Afrobeat/blaxploitation fusion of "Dirty Harry"; an unnamed Caribbean island for the lazy G-funk of "Broken"; and the Middle East for "White Flag," the seductive violin of Albarn's Arab-American guests dancing around the martial drums. When Kano and Bashy came out for some dancehall toasting in the middle, it didn't seem like "White Flag" was about surrender at all.
At times it bordered on overload, like on the electro-orchestral pop of "Glitter Freeze," which even threw a hurdy-gurdy into the mix. But mostly it was sleek and sexy like "Dare" - all pulse, bass and Rosie's butter vocals. Clash fans finally got a little "White Riot" or "Janie Jones" thrown their way in "Feel Good Inc." intro "Punk" - for "Feel Good" proper, Aftermath just kind of stood there in awe that we were watching half of the Clash and De La Soul on the same stage - and Albarn blew his melodihorn over the monster dub of and between Bootie's Cypress Hill spitting on "Clint Eastwood" like he thought he was at Birdland or the Blue Note.
But the sea can be calm, too, and some of Tuesday's most striking moments came when the waves receded: Albarn's Drifters-like duet with Little Dragon on "To Binge"; "Tomorrow Comes Today," an early Gorillaz track that could either be a lost Blur relic or the next James Bond theme; "To Melancholy Hill," which was calypso in spirit if not quite in sound, as Albarn revealed himself as a pretty decent rapper in his own right; the almost motionless beauty of "Plastic Beach"; and "Cloud of Unknowing," which left Womack alone with only a gospel organ for company and brought a hush over the crowd.
Not long after, "Demon Days" found the four animated Gorillaz enshrined in a stained-glass portrait as a heavy gospel-reggae groove guided the show into dry-dock. If the ultimate outcome for the four miscreant outlaws onscreen was redemption, their live-action counterparts underneath beat them to it by a mile.
And along the way, they threw one hell of a party.
Personal Bias: Cartoons, The Clash, old-school funk and hip-hop, an overall rhythmic riot... we'd say we're pretty agreeable to all that.
The Crowd: Half the arena's seats were blocked off, but those that were full were occupied by young, hip, rarely still Houstonians having a blast. In other words, a rare night when Midtown, Washington Avenue and Montrose came together in peace.
Overheard In the Crowd: A constant commentary from the two brahs behind us who never failed to point out the obvious or scream "Mick Jones!" every other song, like the two balcony puppets from The Muppet Show only not as funny. At one point, they felt it necessary to mansplain to Aftermath and our colleague how important The Clash is when they, uh, didn't really need to.
Random Notebook Dump: Openers N.E.R.D. more than held their own with a long set of cutting-edge R&B, raunchy strip-club rap and crunchy psychedelic rock, with nothing more to look at besides the band and two working-overtime dancers. Front man Pharrell took every available opportunity to hype upcoming album Nothing, as well he should have.
GORILLAZ SET LIST
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Intro Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach 19-2000 Last Living Souls Stylo To Melancholy Hill Rhinestone Eyes Superfast Jellyfish Tomorrow Comes Today Empire Ants (brief animated intermission) Broken Dirty Harry El Manana White Flag To Binge Dare Glitter Freeze Plastic Beach
Cloud of Unknowing Punk/Feel Good Inc. Clint Eastwood Don't Get Lost In Heaven Demon Days