A raucous and celebratory return to the full joy of live music with the incredible Gorillaz.
As with every other music fan in the country, it feels like a long, long time since I have found myself inside a heaving, sweaty gig crowd, hollering along to the tunes of my favourite bands. I must admit, on entering the arena this Tuesday evening, I felt a little emotional to actually be inside the O2, about to witness an actual band play an actual gig, with no restrictions or mask mandates or social distancing. It felt slightly surreal staring around the arena, seeing the DJ on stage as the initially sparse crowd started to grow.
This was my first ever Gorillaz gig. Being a creaky old girl from the 90s, I will admit to the fact that for the most part, the main draw of the band is Damon Albarn, a man who has sung on many significant tracks from my youth and who I’ve seen performing live in three stunning gigs from Blur. But in the weeks leading up to this gig, as I familiarised myself a bit more with the Gorillaz back catalogue, I realised just how much they have soundtracked the last two decades, in a similar way to how Blur soundtracked the 90s. It became clear that we’d have an incredible night in store for us at this gig, a free show for NHS staff and the official full reopening of the O2 arena.
The band came on stage around 8.30 to the welcoming cries of “Hello!” from “M1A1”, and from the first brace of tunes it was clear they were not here to mess about. Nothing says We Mean Business quite so emphatically as introducing the legendary Robert Smith to feature on the second song of the set, performing the recent single “Strange Timez”. From the very start, the band’s energy and enthusiasm was off the charts. “Last Living Souls” and “Tranz” carried on that energy mightily, and very soon we had another venerable guest, Peter Hook, to play on “Aries”.
In the first half of the set, the album tracks from “Demon Days” were particularly wonderful, most notably a dramatic and moody “El Mañana” and a strident “Kids With Guns”. But I have to admit what was most wonderful about the gig for me was seeing Damon Albarn singing live in front of me after so long. He is such a pure musical force, an endless font of creative energy, as joyous in his performance this night as I ever saw him when fronting Blur in decades gone by. For someone of my vintage, it is truly incredible to be able to see him put on a performance like this in 2021, thirty years after I heard his voice for the first time as I peered at his young face in the video to “There’s No Other Way”.
Which is not to say that the rest of the band were anything less than stellar. In particular the troupe of backing vocalists added a stunning, soulful edge to even the most raucous songs. And the brace of drummers who appeared to play on some new songs which are coming out in a few weeks as a celebration of the again-cancelled Notting Hill Carnival turned the gig into an immense party.
Round about 10pm I was beginning to feel a bit achy and weary, and starting thinking that I might take it easy with the dancing for the last few songs. And then Damon announced Shaun Ryder who rambled on to the stage, and we were of course flung into “Dare” and there was nothing to be done apart from dancing your little legs off. Even if Shaun did seem to be struggling a bit to remember when to sing his bits of the song, needing helpful prompts from Damon and his Happy Mondays bandmate Rowetta from time to time. From here on it was pretty much a barrage of hits, with “19-2000” and especially “Dirty Harry” seeing the crowd practically bouncing all the way up into the O2 ceiling, including myself, even though my body was 100% made of pain by this point.
Of the special guests, Fatoumata Diawara was an effervesent presence on “Desole”, and Leee John was utterly astounding on “The Lost Chord”. Earthgang put in a hugely energetic performance of “Opium”, and Slowthai and Slaves came on to guest on a track so monstrous and bass-thrashing that even with my earplugs in it sounds as though a steamroller was crashing into my brain.
But the most incredible moments of this already highlight-studded gig came in the encore. My own favourite Gorillaz song, perhaps predictably, is “Feel Good Inc”. With its plaintive and gorgeous “windmill, windmill” refrain, I had thought beforehand that singing along to it at this gig would be a hugely emotional experience after the year we’ve had – especially hollering “love forever, love is free, let’s turn forever you and me” along with Damon and thousands of others. But it was much more of a huge riotous celebration as everything else had been at this point, embellished once again by the buzzing presence of Earthgang. The following “Clint Eastwood” was equally massive as it morphed into a super-speedy version with the reappearance of the previous gang of drummers.
Finally, though, it was “Demon Days”, the big gospel ode to whole-heartedly embracing better times, that provided the most powerful moment of the night. For the second time that evening I felt a bit emotional, thinking of all the days we’ve lived recently when experiencing a night like this felt like a remote impossibility. All of which made the repeated command to “turn yourself around into the sun” feel the most perfect sentiment possible to end this gig on.
This night felt like a huge festival of freedom – not just our newly reinstated freedom to gather in our thousands and witness glorious live music from the musical greats, but also our freedom to express ourselves, to speak out about injustice and to exercise our own choices in our lives. In an era where these freedoms are not always guaranteed, returning to live music in a rousing celebration of them was a glorious thing indeed.