Concert Reviews

Gorillaz: Less Gimmicks, More Vulnerability on Humanz Tour

Damon Albarn of Gorillaz.
Damon Albarn of Gorillaz. Aaron Thackeray
When Damon Albarn, the creative madman behind the genre-bending collective Gorillaz, emerged onto the Red Rocks stage Tuesday night, my first thought was that he looked like he’d either been plucked from a bus stop on Colfax Avenue or just rolled out of bed.

With the exception of his outer jean jacket, he was wearing what almost looked like pajama bottoms and the same type of generic gray sweatshirt that you’d throw on before hitting “brew” on the coffee machine on a cold, lazy Saturday morning. His hair was unkempt. His five o’clock shadow was stretching into six o’clock. And most bizarre, he was wearing a coin purse necklace on his chest — like something you might see geriatrics sporting in a casino in Reno as they amble from slot machine to slot machine until they reach into their purse and find – damn! — they’ve run out of quarters.

Perhaps anticipating questions around this curious fashion accessory, Albarn announced between a couple songs that he was carrying a “stone” inside the purse and that it is very important to him. “It’s the first time...I feel like I’m playing inside my stone,” he said. “My stone and I are very happy to be here.”

Well, okay then.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is that, oddly, Albarn’s no-fucks-given appearance — which contrasted sharply with his bassist and guitarist, who both looked like they were typecast to be rock stars in the upcoming reboot of Blade Runner — lent him an air of humility and authenticity.

This worked to his advantage.

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Aaron Thackeray
Indeed, the whole production at Red Rocks felt so much more vulnerable than the last time I saw Gorillaz during their 2010 Escape to Plastic Beach tour — an over-the-top spectacle that involved forty-plus musicians and more than a couple moments of sloppiness.

Prioritizing the human performers and moving ever more away from Gorillaz’ virtual characters — 2D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs — that Albarn conceptualized with illustrator Jamie Hewlett in the late 1990s seems to have been a general trend over the group's four world tours (including this one, in support of the group’s 2017 release, Humanz).

During the band’s first two tours, which took place in 2000 and 2005, Albarn and Hewlett toyed with their idea of a virtual band by having Albarn play behind a screen that projected images and animations of the Gorillaz characters (all of whom have developed their own personalities and folklore over the course of the act's catchy concept albums).

By 2010, Albarn had decided to emerge from behind the veil, but he was sometimes lost within that forty-person ensemble that I mentioned earlier.

On Tuesday night at Red Rocks, the collective was reduced to thirteen people, with Albarn boldly taking the spotlight (aside from some excellent guest vocals by opener Vince Staples on “Ascension,” soul singer Preven Everett on “Strobelite” and “Stylo,” Camille Berthomier on “We Got the Power,” and De La Soul’s David Jude Jolicoeur on “Feel Good, Inc.”)

In a live context, this tour is Albarn’s most vulnerable performance yet, and it was the right call.

While I think it was unique in the early aughts to explore 3-D animation and the virtual-character concept, this tour comes at time when our technological advances are also alienating us.

Social media, once regaled with utopian expectations, has divided us rather than brought us closer together. And the digital realm has largely become a cesspool of hatred and bitterness, exacerbated by a White House that seems content to manipulate those forces to torch any move toward unity and civility.

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Aaron Thackeray
I suspect that Gorillaz’ decision to name its latest album and tour Humanz was no coincidence; it’s part of a growing need to re-focus on gathering people together, physically, for experiences that bond us through honesty and vulnerability.

Tuesday’s concert probably wasn’t a favorite for anyone hoping to dance the whole night away with a lineup of party-bangers (though Gorillaz could probably pull off a set like that). And certainly there were moments like that (predictably during "Feel Good, Inc."), when the absolutely sold-out — and maybe over-sold — crowd would swell and sway and whoop and pay no heed to the rain that pelted Red Rocks throughout the whole concert.

But Albarn spent at least half the set playing slower cuts, especially from Demon Days and Humanz, including a rather long rendition of the song “Busted and Blue” that included very little in the way of pre-produced animations on the LED screen suspended behind the band. Instead, Albarn was spotlighted at the front of the stage, exposed.

Going along with his desire to connect with the Humanz in the audience, he ventured into the crowd a couple of times and began hugging fans. It did not strike me as an act.

Which brings me back, full circle, to his lazy-Saturday sweatsuit attire. You know what? Even that seemed appropriate by the end of the show, because there simply was no pretension there. It was just Albarn being Albarn, wearing a very comfortable get-up on a cold, damp Colorado night. It was honest. And certainly we could use more honesty if we’re to hold on to a sense of community with our fellow humanz.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker