Although the band members of Gorillaz might be fictional — figments of the vivid imaginations of musician Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett — its fans are very real. Gorillaz fans are also numerous, as demonstrated by the serpentine line that coiled around the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to catch the virtual band on the latest sold-out stop in its “Humanz” tour.
Such a vast fanbase translates into a demographically diverse one for Gorillaz — fresh off the successful mid-90s high of Blur, the British rock band he fronted, Albarn joined Hewlett in 1998 to create a more experimental music experience. Hewlett’s colorful character depictions freed Albarn of the bounds that a famous Brit-pop icon would need to adhere to musically, and as a result, he had free rein to bring in influences from electronica to reggae to hip-hop in the first and eponymous Gorillaz album. The range of sonic hues, as well as the coterie of well-known collaborators in their respective music scenes, gave Gorillaz a firmer foothold in the United States than the bright and unapologetically British Blur ever found.
Humanz is thus far the most collaborated-on Gorillaz album, and the most rooted in hip-hop and R&B. Many of Albarn’s guests joined the tour, most notably Vince Staples and Danny Brown, whose vigorous opening acts primed an enthusiastic crowd as full of their fans as it was of Albarn’s.
Just as the audience’s anticipation settled into a steady churn, the Gorillaz act began, utilizing the unconventional slow swell and rollicking beat of “M1 A1” to build the excitement until it boiled over with the main drumline and, finally, Albarn’s long-awaited vocals.
The thumping and, as demonstrated by large swathes of the crowd, highly danceable rhythm continued unbroken for much of the show, from classics such as “Last Living Souls” and “19-2000” to newer standouts from Humanz, such as the eccentric “Saturnz Barz.”
The dance club atmosphere didn’t exclude the more lyrical numbers from the Gorillaz discography, most prominently represented by “El Mañana” and “On Melancholy Hill.” Both of these well-loved tracks were supported by artful music videos, which not only feature the actual band members but also hint at the incredibly rich storyline that Gorillaz fans have come to cherish through its convolution.
And, speaking of the elusive band members, their presence was quite understated. Besides the music videos cycling through the screen behind the stage, their 8-bit countenances also made occasional appearances on a small overhead display. Overall, Murdoc, Noodle, 2-D and Russel seemed more like Easter eggs than the main event this time around. While the suspension of disbelief that the musicians’ presence provided was vital to the early image of Gorillaz, by now the band has taken off enough to allow for these peeks under the hood.
This break from the beloved gimmick was more than welcome — it allowed the many collaborators on Humanz to take the spotlight typically reserved for the virtual band members. Staples and Brown returned after their dazzling openers to supply vocals on “Ascension” and “Submission,” their respective Humanz tracks. Little Simz also impressed with her darkly energetic “Garage Palace,” which, only available in the Humanz box set, fell upon largely fresh ears with overwhelming acclaim.
While not all of the collaborators could make it to the tour, shadows of their presences came through the same screens that featured Gorillaz’s music videos. After all, the understated but intoxicating bass of “Andromeda” wouldn’t have felt complete without D.R.A.M.’s signature grin behind his smooth backing vocals. Kelela’s ethereal vocals on “Submission” were similarly matched by her larger-than-life screen rendering, in sensual blue shades.
The elation that greeted Albarn, his collaborators and the cartoon band in equal measures is a testament to what Gorillaz represents — that the passion accompanying the creation and consumption of music is one that transcends flesh. Even without one solid identity, with a two-dimensional leading man, with an ever-changing cocktail of genres and guests attached to its albums, Gorillaz has connected intimately with a worldwide, decades-old fanbase that will faithfully follow them wherever its artistic direction next leads.