When Damon Albarn set out to make Gorillaz’s most recent album, Humanz, he attempted to envision a future in which Donald Trump — then a rapidly rising candidate in the Republican primaries — was elected and, shortly thereafter, everything went straight to shit.
Like most everything created prior to Nov. 9 that envisioned Donald J. Trump as commander-in-chief, the work was meant to be speculative, not prophetic. And then, well, Nov. 9 happened.
Just under a year later, we find ourselves living in Albarn’s hellscape, a future made all the more horrific by the devastation and mismanagement of Puerto Rico and the mass shooting in Las Vegas. With mere days standing between the latter and Gorillaz’s Oct. 4 show at Bill Graham, it wasn’t possible to walk through the metal detector without thinking of the terrorist act. After the shooting at the Bataclan in France, many music journalists wrote beautiful and important pieces about how loving music and attending concerts was a fundamentally radical act. But a major shooting at a music event had happened again, and the narrative decided upon post-Bataclan shooting felt flimsy in the aftermath of Las Vegas.
“You’re clear,” the guard said, waving me forward and snapping me out of train of thought. Right. I grabbed my bag and handed my ticket over. I hoped everybody else — however many thousand of us it took to fill the auditorium — were clear, too. “Now you’re being paranoid,” I thought. “Snap out of it.”
I figured Gorillaz would help me do as much. The show began loud and bright and abrasive, the intro music less music than a voice from the ether calling out, “Is anyone there?” again and again. It’s a sample from the late George A. Romero’s 1985 zombie film Day of the Dead, but it was undeniably reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, specifically “Is There Anybody Out There?”
Whatever the case, it was highly effective, in that the answer given by the sell-out crowd was a definitive yes. Once settled on stage, Albarn and company responded in kind with a manic rendition of “M1 A1,” strobes shooting in every direction. Knowing better than to go full speed, full power straight away, they segued into an gentler moment by way of “Last Living Souls,” the entire stage dark save for a single spot on Albarn. (Get it?)
As a live endeavor, Gorillaz is an unapologetic spectacle: two percussionists, six backup singers, a staggeringly complex light show, and a floor-to-ceiling screen on which a career’s worth of music videos are spliced into new edits and the cartoon band members make themselves known. Murdoc Niccals, the band’s fictional bassist whose backstory includes selling his soul to Satan in return for rock superstardom, makes his first appearance early, greeted by raucous cheers.
Those six backup singers were put to extremely good use on “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead,” giving the track a choral outro that deserved a proper recording. But there wasn’t much time to focus on the musicians who remained onstage for the entire set, as Gorillaz rely on a lengthy parade of guest stars in the studio and onstage. Openers Danny Brown and Vince Staples were trotted out for their Humanz features (“Submission” and “Ascension,” respectively) and fuel the spectacle with their restless performance energy. Little Simz stomps and bounces through “Garage Palace”; Savages’ Jehnny Beth sings for her life atop a pair of fire engine red heels for set closer “We Got The Power.” (She took them off before standing on the hands of the crowd, for what it’s worth.) Cartoon incarnations of Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed flashed by during a warm rendition of “On Melancholy Hill.”
In many ways, it’s the hyper-stimulating visual element that makes Gorillaz shows distinct experiences. More often than not, the visuals are engrossing pieces of filmmaking and previously released music videos re-edited to resemble glitch art. Synced up to the melody and lyrics, the production leaves minimal room for improvisation. It must be nerve-wracking to run, but the results impress.
But the night, in light of one particular recent event, demanded more than an impressive spectacle, especially when helmed by Albarn. In his decades-long career, he has never pretended to be apolitical. Written and recorded well prior to Gorillaz forming, Blur’s early albums revealed his keen sense of and penchant for mocking the class system in England and the systems that perpetuate it. He vocally opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Brexit, and, despite removing all direct references to Donald Trump within Humanz prior to its release, focused an entire album on themes surrounding the contemporary political climate. Speaking out is his norm.
Perhaps he was locked into the synchronicity of his visuals. Perhaps he wasn’t in the mood — until “Kids With Guns,” that is, from 2005’s Demon Days. “I have to sing this,” he intoned as the song ramped to full volume, a brutalizing minutes-long montage of a variety of guns flashing across the screen. It was raw as hell, and further heightened by new reports that the Las Vegas shooter may have initially planned to target a festival featuring Gorillaz earlier this summer. Matched with the song’s spine-rattling beat, it left his crowd breathless.
I wondered at the rationale behind this, and returned to a statement he made just prior to an extended version of “Sex Murder Party.” Sitting down at the keyboard, he had leaned into the microphone and said, “Let’s see if we can exorcise some ghosts.”
Perhaps this was an exorcism, or at the very least a forced confrontation with our own culture. And firearm imagery abounded: the relentless montage that accompanied “Kids With Guns,” the video of “On Melancholy Hill” in which cartoon guitarist Noodle unloads a semi-automatic in the direction of her attackers, the abrasive visual of pointed hoods marching forth with rifles in hand. With the pulverizing beat and overwhelming stage production, Albarn didn’t intend this music as a means of escapism. This was, in a phrase, real shit.
But it was also an unbridled delight (especially when Oakland native Del the Funky Homosapien set the crowd ablaze with “Clint Eastwood”) and true to Gorillaz’s spirit. As a sweeping rendition of “Demon Days” closed the encore, all six backup singers created a transcendent chant out of the final lyrics: “Turn yourself to the sun.” The moment took on the same cosmic hippie optimism of The Fifth Dimension’s “The Flesh Failures” — a 21st-century update of “Let the sunshine in.” After forcing us to look at ourselves, Gorillaz finished with a reminder to keep looking toward the light.