OK, imagine this. You’re standing in the beautiful Aragon Ballroom in Chicago watching the latest hyped multimedia event. You’d right click on the giant video screen in front of you with your mouse, if you could. Or zap the image of a giant metal gorilla with red eyes marching towards you, if you had your PlayStation control buttons handy. But this isn’t a video game. Wait, maybe it is—or, it could be a cartoon show, or a concert, or all three combined.
3 Mar 2002: Aragon Ballroom Chicago
The “band” or concept (as it should be called) is Gorillaz: the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, UK illustrator Jamie Hewlett (the creator of comic Tank Girl), and hip-hop producer/remixer Dan the Automator. Four post-apocalyptic, post-human band members travel in their open-top jeep, bang on their instruments (not a keyboardist in the bunch, even though their sound is heavily electronic) and get into the usual after-school cartoon antics of sumo wrestling and racing vehicles on endless highways.
The logistics of having a fictional band play live was a head-scratcher when a Gorillaz tour was announced months ago. Simple solution: Gorillaz-the-concert, in the true spirit of Gorillaz-the-band, would be multimedia. The stage consisted of a giant video screen above an equal-sized white scrim. Behind this semi-translucent scrim, shadows of the players can be seen waving arms and engaging in musician-ly feats of guitar strumming and . . . drum machine programming. Though at the March 3 show at the Aragon, it was impossible to tell if it was actually Damon and Dan back there, or some Chicago extras they hired to fill in their places. And the next question: were they playing live or just miming? Del the Funky Homosapien, the rapper on some of the album cuts, could be the man that rapped live that night, giving shout-outs to local neighborhoods (Cicero) and Queen Oprah. But it could also have been some knowing local—who, if the show were in, say, San Francisco, would be doling his props out to Pacific Heights and the Golden Gate. When you’re hidden by a mostly opaque screen, just like the Wizard of Oz, you can do anything and no one is the wiser.
Oh yeah, the music. I almost forgot I was at a concert. It’s easy to do when there’s no sly band-audience banter or sweaty, drunken, band-mate antics. But if a band that had some of its hip-hop/dub reggae-infused pop pre-programmed for the show bothered anyone in the packed crowd, no one displayed it. The rave aspect of this sound-system, with its flashing lights, lasers, projections and pounding bass beats was universally appealing to the 14-year-old skate rats, indie nerds, and pretty girls in their best synthetic club gear who comprised the audience. Gorillaz definitely have the power of groove, just a problem with presentation.
So was any of it live? With Damon Albarn’s recognizable voice chanting “she turned my Dad on” in “5/4”, it’s almost ridiculous to think that the Gorillaz characters like Noodle or 2D were actually “singing” anything on that screen. Then again, it seemed pointless to discuss whether it was all done live or through backing tapes. It was just pleasing to have Albarn play (or should that be: “play”) his melodica on the single ‘“Tomorrow Comes Today” and be engulfed in the throbbing vibe of the sound system.
If your band is entirely two-dimensional, why bother playing live? Why the opaque screen? Why not spend the tour in the VIP area, sipping martinis as the machines pump out the rhythm and the video projectors do the dirty work? How about a seated theater show with a touring feature length film? Oh right—that idea is already in the works. These questions were falling on deaf ears at the show. Those pretty, young ears gone deaf through the sub-woofer bass.
As the encore comes nearly an hour after the show starts, I felt deja-vu coming on. The sounds of their smash single “Clint Eastwood” appear . . . again. Not a live remix (they can do that nowadays, kids), but a version strikingly similar to the one played 45 minutes earlier. A rerun of a cartoon show was an interesting concept for a live rock concert.
Andy Warhol once did a college lecture tour and it was a few dates into the tour before audience caught on that it wasn’t even Warhol onstage speaking, but an impostor, personally chosen by the pop artist to portray him. But in truth, no one really cared. The same goes for the Gorillaz “live” Chicago debut. Not that Albarn and Dan the Automator weren’t pushing buttons or strumming strings, but that cartoon masks were the face of the evening. Sometimes phonies are more satisfying than the blood, sweat and tears of the real thing. After all, no one gets disappointed when the film plays out like clockwork, do they?
// Notes from the Road
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