A cartoon band, Gorillaz may have started from behind Jamie Hewlett’s caricatures but permanent frontman Damon Albarn didn’t pretend to be anything other than flesh and blood at Outside Lands in its headlining set Friday night. Albarn stepped up to the crowd in dark jeans and a black shirt, bereft of inky outlines and purple-y oil paint sheen — it was just the sort of outfit you’d expect from someone who’s 49 years old and English and not a cartoon.
Storm clouds of stage smoke floated around him, sliced through by striped, white lasers and backlit by villainous sci-fi bursts of emerald green. He stood steadily behind the mic stand in the center, singing through the color-saturated air, as the sky at the fringes of Golden Gate Park turned pink then black.
The spotlights refracting around the stage hopscotched the color spectrum as Albarn jumped around the band’s discography — seizured flashes of emerald for “M1 A1” from Gorillaz, a glare of hazy blue at Albarn’s call of “Are we the last living soul?” from Demon Days, a single sheath of white on Albarn as a twangy keyboard synth plucked out the bouncy melody from “19-2000.” It was a song played twice because the band lost its place after Albarn forgot the lyrics while down in the crowd: “I fucked up and I don’t want to fuck up so we’re going to do this again,” he said as the crowd went bananas.
Through the mishmash of alternating colors and sonic eras of Gorillaz, Albarn presented a parade of guest artists — Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon followed American hip hop group De La Soul, who followed Pusha T, who followed Kali Uchis.
Guest artists are a common staple for the Gorillaz, the result of his role as a creative producer. Perhaps the best collaboration — performed and recorded — was that with Nagano on “Empire Ants.”
Nagano waltzed in from from stage left in a second impressive outfit (having played an hour prior with her own band Little Dragon on the same stage in a wide-brimmed neon yellow hat and puffy, ruffled dress). Her voice fluctuated gorgeously and easily over the lilting synths and driving drum line on the song from the upper half of Plastic Beach.
But, of course, it’s hard to top “On Melancholy Hill,” which the band played immediately before. The song’s keyboard line is instantly recognizable, as are Albarn’s megaphone-esque vocals as he opens with, “Up on Melancholy Hill there’s a plastic tree / Are you here with me?” It’s also one of the few songs of the night that was easy for a large crowd to sing along to — so as hands waved darkly silhouetted against a jewel-toned watercolor stage light, you could hear them shouting back the lyrics.
Following “On Melancholy Hill” and “Empire Ants” in the middle of the set, Gorillaz played 10 more songs before beginning its five-song encore with “Stylo.”
What followed “Stylo,” though, was probably the best moment of the night: Vincent Mason (Maseo) of De La Soul returned to the stage, murmurs of anticipation filling the crowd as he shuffled and leaned toward the edge of the stage, Albarn asking the audience to hush so Maseo could focus. The laugh at the beginning of “Feel Good Inc.” resounded across the park as cheers erupted alongside the prominent drum lead in. Nobody stood still through the end of the song.
The end of Gorillaz’s encore brought “Demon Days” and Albarn’s question: “We’re going to keep playing until they switch us off, okay?”
Of course, the audience deemed it perfectly okay, and Gorillaz was cut off before the end of the tune, the geometric colors of the stained glass projection behind them fading out along with the musicians. But not even the SF noise curfew could fade out the crowd’s energy.