Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
There’s a plotline to all the mayhem, if you’re interested, some backstory to the wild exploits of this virtual band, that serves to nominally explain why lovable scamps 2D, Murdoc, Russell and Noodle are always under attack by anachronistic seaplanes, what Noodle’s doing with that machine gun that’s as big as she is and why she’s a cyborg now, and why Bruce Willis is trying to kill them. But at their live shows, somewhere between the mesmerizing blazing lights and colors of Jamie Hewlett’s beautifully animated eye candy, Damon Albarn’s enchanting incantations and all of the talent and star power of the Gorillaz’ juggernaut collective, you realize that none of that cartoonish context really matters all that much.
Albarn and Hewlett have expanded “concept album” to “concept band,” with a brilliant project that remains in peak creative form two decades and six studio albums later. It’s as if they’ve asked: What if we took “Yellow Submarine,” updated it with state-of-the-art animation, added way more explosions, heavy artillery and high-speed car chases, and then didn’t even break up a year later too? They’ve jockeyed elements of reggae and electronica, fashioned hybrid hit singles with hip hop and brit-pop, and conceived an entire graphic-novel universe scored with a deceptively sophisticated soundtrack that double-deals the blissful and the bleak.
No fewer than 15 musicians at a time handed down over two hours’ worth of that soundtrack to a warm Wells Fargo Center crowd last night, against frenetic laser lights and synchronized backdrop of Hewlett’s animated films. Albarn was the cool and collected center of the storm, the roguishly handsome frontman looking as good as he ever did at the helm of a Blur show 25 years ago. He seemed self-satisfied looking on, though, as a roster of enlisted talent upstaged him at every turn, from Peven Everett’s very noble Bobby Womack impression on “Stylo” to members of Pharcyde and De La Soul on “ Feel Good Inc.,” “Superfast Jellyfish,” and “Dirty Harry.” And yes of course they played “Clint Eastwood,” with Del Tha Ghost Rapper ghost-rapping his studio vocals and it was like sunshine in a bag.
With that, the Gorillaz are stepping out on a high note. “This is the last time you’ll see us for awhile,” submitted Albarn to break the news of an extended hiatus, lamenting, “like everything, nothing lasts forever.” Maybe true for the real world, but the real world isn’t where the Gorillaz exist. That’s the ultimate virtue of virtuality: 2D and his scrappy band of hellions will always be out there somewhere, fighting the good fight against evil henchman and bad music, cooling out on a sunny plastic beach, or braving the tumult and turbulence of the glitter freeze. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER