Say you dreamed up a virtual band with a friend of yours who's a comic book artist. Say a bunch of instruments were lying around waiting for you to pick and pluck at them, and a bunch of friends kept dropping by to play. You'd act like a kid. No, you'd act like Damon Albarn did last night.
Albarn is the frontman for the musical collective he created with Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz, and much has been made over the star-stuffed lineups for "Escape to Plastic Beach," the band's first world tour.
Indeed, most of the guests murmured to appear did so last night--De La Soul, Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack--but the show was much more than the sum of Albarn's friends in high places. After all, this is Los Angeles; if they aren't out of town on their own tours, any number of surprise special guests pops up onstage at concerts.
And the guest spots last night felt a little weird, anyway. With the exception of Lou Reed (who, in typical deadpan, talked his "Some Kind of Nature" lyrics before delivering a short but blistering guitar solo), the guests surfaced, sang, and slunk off with little fanfare.
At first, it seemed maybe the three giant video screens, catering to the full house, would steal the show. Considering the band is virtual, that might've been ok. The dimming of the stage lights while the next video began drummed up a sort of child-like anticipation: oooo, who's gonna come out next?!
Projected videos and vignettes fleshed with Hewlett's loping, slouching, slightly maniacal characters and jumpstarted by sudden violence shattering serene images were so absorbing it was difficult to tear your eyes away to the live action onstage.
Well, that's probably Albarn and Hewlett's point. We're so engrossed in what's going on in a virtual world that we forget to engage with the real one. "Are we the last living souls?" Albarn forcibly implored, as the screens showed two men with sun-bleached eyes and dirt-caked faces stumbling across a barren, parched mountainside. But this was fun, for the grinning Albarn, too, "I may look like I'm enjoying myself, but I'm not. I hate every minute of it." The point was made subtly, and then left alone.
The band sounded great, plain and simple. Chicago's Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, dressed in nautical stripes, and a seven-member string section, women in sailor caps and cigarette-slim skirts, were prominent members of Albarn's orchestra. An excitable conductor, Albarn bounded back and forth between the microphone, keyboard, and his backup singers. Menacing sound marched towards the audience with grim determination, then suddenly shifted to the soundtrack of a hipster fairy tale of a film, and then just as swiftly became a swirling merry-go-round. As often as they played new material from their latest album, Plastic Beach, they revisited the classics that the six-year-olds in attendance delighted in--"Feel Good, Inc.," "19-2000," and "Dare."
Leaping, lurching, and flinging himself on the ground, Albarn, the lead singer of dormant Britpop band Blur, revealed a heart that still beats strong for raucous indie rock. During "Rhinestone Eyes," it almost felt like 1993 again, and the audience remembered that era well enough to erupt in the night's loudest applause.
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Until the encore, that is. After an hour and a half set, the band ducked offstage briefly before returning for almost another thirty minutes. Finally, the darkly joyous chorus of "Don't Get Lost in Heaven" rose, Bobby Womack extemporized like a pastor, and stained glass windows featuring the Gorillaz family loomed on the video screens. And on that oddly sweet wave, L.A. was swept back out into its own slightly demented, Technicolor comic book world.