If these shows had taken place in England in the late ‘90s, there would have been considerable commotion. Perched on his piano bench, Blur frontman Damon Albarn is sharing the stage with Simon Tong and Simon Jones, two members of former fellow Britrock titans the Verve. It’s interesting to note that, at a run of concerts centered in large part on the thrill of a series of guest stars, this particular cultural run-in goes for the most part unnoticed. It’s just a few too many years after its time.
Demon Days Live however, is very much of its moment. While Albarn’s musicianship and vision are no secret to longtime Blur fans, it’s his Gorillaz project that has enabled him to stay in the pop-culture limelight, drawing in more fans (often remarkably young ones) than he could still hope to attract with his other band. Mixing hip-hop with world music, rock with pop, and blurring the lines of reality with animation as readily as those genres, Albarn has created not just music, but an entire concept that appeals to just about every age group, every ethnic group, and fans of all types of music. It definitely didn’t hurt that Demon Days the album, the group’s second full-length, was produced by man-of-the-moment Danger Mouse—a Midas-like beat-king who lately can’t help but turn every record he touches into gold (or quite possibly platinum).
The idea behind Demon Days Live is both simple and ambitious: to perform the new album in its entirety, bring in everyone who even briefly appeared on the disc (whenever possible), and supplement the show with unique video presentations for each song. Throw in a gospel choir, a children’s choir, a full-string section, and a couple of life-sized talking puppets in the balcony, and you have a production worthy of a five-night run at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre.
As with any undertaking involving so many components, of course, it was all about the execution. While Demon Days Live had already enjoyed a successful similar run in the UK (now commemorated on DVD), the New York shows—and New York crowds—remained an unknown quantity. And indeed, things hardly got off to an ideal start. On the first night of the concerts, the video screen that displays all of the visuals (animations, short films, videos) failed to function.
As a result, the focus fell squarely on the music itself. On the one hand, this was a good thing: Albarn is a remarkable performer, a man with undeniable charisma and presence, even when he hides in the shadows toward the back of the stage. And some of the guest performers were up to the challenge as well, dominating the stage with performances ranging from exuberant (De La Soul) to delightfully bizarre (Shaun Ryder). However, this focus on the players also spotlighted the shortcomings of live versions of songs that feature pre-recorded vocals, as well as some of the show’s more lackadaisical, less engaging moments.
Overall, night one was an enjoyable experience, but a return visit revealed that, indeed, something had been missing. With the screen working, the pre-recorded vocal tracks (primarily Danger Mouse collaborator MF Doom’s) were joined by amusing video footage, while many of the songs featured original animations by Gorillaz’ visual mastermind Jamie Hewlett. When the action on stage wasn’t enough for the ADD-addled audience, in other words, there was always something interesting to look at. On top of that, Wednesday’s performance featured an unheralded, extremely well-received live appearance by Dennis Hopper, reprising his role on the album by reading aloud on “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head.” It was his first time joining the band on stage, and while he would do it again on the following nights, the element of surprise on this one made it all the more special.
There were still some odd moments—the usually mighty Roots Manuva seemed a bit lost on the Apollo’s stage during “All Alone”, for example, even with the resplendent Martina Topley Bird by his side - but overall, it was a performance where all the elements fell into place. When Albarn finally came to the front of the stage to sing non-album track “Hong Kong” fully revealed, he seemed genuinely happy, and rightfully so. An additional element even helped to close things on a more emotional note: with the video screen working, Gorillaz were able to screen footage of the late, great Ibrahim Ferrer turning in a passionate vocal performance on “Latin Simone,” a track from the band’s debut.
From a cultural standpoint, really, these shows—and Gorillaz in general—could be analyzed on a myriad of levels, and from a multitude of viewpoints; but as the real-life realization of the work of a band of cartoon misfits, and as the coming together of a whole cast of genuine performers and personalities, it was simply a damn good time. These days, it doesn’t get much more culturally relevant than that.