Sometimes you have to reconcile your memories of an artist’s past glory with current reality. Have you spent decades hearing people older than you talk about how wonderful legendary bands like The Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses or U2 were back in their early days? How no matter how good they all still are, it somehow fails to compare to the incredible genesis state of the bands when they were youthful and had something to prove. We’ve now come far enough in the modern era where bands that we regard as titans of the most recent phase of music history (take Radiohead for example) have been around long enough to make something less than perfectly brilliant.
Gorillaz, the genre-destroying pop confection brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, charted an unprecedented three-album run that is truly hard to top. Their self-titled release spawning three major hit singles in “Clint Eastwood,” “Rock the House” and “19-2000,” they followed up even stronger in 2005 with Demon Days, which went even larger in terms of success behind “Feel Good Inc.” and “Dare.” By 2010, they were superstars and cemented their legacy with the nearly note-for-note perfection of Plastic Beach (it was mxdwn’s Album of the Year for 2010 by the way). They famously played a sold-out arena tour and headlined Coachella. It was hard to top how stellar that release was.
After a decent hiatus, the band released only one single, done for a marketing program put on by Converse, a jaw-dropping, 13-minute plus opus in collaboration with LCD Soundsystem and Andre 3000 of Outkast called “DoYaThing.” They finally returned last year with a new album entitled Humanz, and strangely, another whole album The Now Now, quickly recorded just over a year later. The problem is, Humanz and The Now Now both fail to live up to the immaculate precision of their first three albums. There’s nothing wrong with either of them, and let’s be frank, even at their absolute worst they are better albums than just about anyone we know could make with unlimited time and an unlimited budget. But somehow, neither feels as cohesive as the band’s first three albums nor has any song that has unforgettable power that “Tomorrow Comes Today” or “On Melancholy Hill” so effortlessly exuded. Oddly, “Sleeping Powder” (which was actually a non-album single recorded after Humanz) is the only thing that comes close.
The self-titled debut album was famously co-produced with the brilliant Dan the Automator and Demon Days was produced by Danger Mouse. Plastic Beach featured Albarn producing himself. Each of the three brilliantly mutated between different styles and tempos without ever feeling schizophrenic. In comparison, Humanz and The Now Now feel like a random assortment of ideas that never really gel the way accumulated expectation would hope for.
In their own style of a victory lap, the band has taken to holding occasional mini-festivals styled Demon Dayz. Tonight we experienced Albarn’s legendary band doing the LA installment of this festival, armed with a small cadre of opening acts on three stages. It’s easy to see why doing festivals like this can be helpful for this project, as so many classic songs require guest spots from practically dozens of artists. It’s not exactly practical to drag all these musicians with them on a nationwide (never mind worldwide) tour. Worse yet, certain key artists that did stellar songs with the band have passed away (Ibrahim Ferrer, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Ike Turner to name a few) and others like DOOM, Mos Def, Miho Hatori, Del the Funky Homosapien don’t often perform live for a variety of reasons.
This particular installment of Demon Dayz featured an excellent round robin of the band’s best and brightest songs, coupled with the best guest collaborators available. Early career songs “M1 A1,” “Tomorrow Comes Today,” “19-2000” and “Clint Eastwood” mingled in with the best from Demon Dayz “Last Living Souls,” “Kids With Guns,” “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven/Demon Days” and “Every Planet We Reach is Dead.” Plastic Beach was well represented as well including choice cuts like “Rhinestone Eyes,” “On Melancholy Hill,” “Broken” and the bouncy “Plastic Beach.” Of the guests that were present, they had George Benson for guitar on “Humility,” Little Simz on the frenetic “Garage Palace” and Peven Everett & Bootie Brown for contributions on “Strobelite,” “Stylo” (collaboratively) and “Dirty Harry” respectively. Most significant was the appearance of Blur’s Graham Coxon for a performance of one of Blur’s biggest stateside hits, “Song 2,” an inclusion as fun as it was out of nowhere, Albarn introduced it as an effort in “cross pollination.” Lacking some of their more famous surprise appearances (Snoop Dogg, Shaun Ryder for “DARE,” Del the Funky Homosapien for “Clint Eastwood,” Mos Def for “Stylo” and “Sweepstakes”) the night’s greatest guests were used way too early. De La Soul’s contributions to “Superfast Jellyfish” and “Feel Good Inc” both happened long before the encore break and were genuine highlights of the whole show.
The crowd, for the most part, seemed to truly enjoy the show but reacted predictably stronger to some of the band’s bigger hit songs. Still, Albarn nailed it how this evening’s crowd was wonderfully diverse and inclusive. “Joining people together,” he proclaimed happily. “Positivity. That’s what it’s all about,” he indicated before performing “Souk Eye” and dedicating it to the capacity crowd present. Later, prior to performing “Plastic Beach,” he pointed out in reference to the recent UN scientists report, “They say we got 12 years left. And the state of California has more chance of facilitating change than anywhere else. You are the chosen people.” Along with the very necessary (and Del-less) “Clint Eastwood,” the encore included a series of touching and angelic moments, fitting for a decrescendo. “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo?)” was played to note-perfect precision featuring a full-screen video of the late Ibrahim Ferrer recording his vocals. The set ended with the lovely coupling of “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven/Demon Days” gently setting the audience down.
Was it great? Sure. There’s no way to deny that this is a special band that will go down in history as one of the boldest ever in pop music. But it’s also hard not to grapple with the incongruity of the more-recent material nestled against the immaculate older material. Somehow the newer material just does not resonate on the same level as what brought the band to these incredible heights. As with all things though, the future belongs to the young. It is very likely a limitation of coming of age in the era where this band was revolutionary and literally knowing that as pleasant as Gorillaz may sound, it was a project so uniquely strange that our parents could not possibly comprehend how fearless it was. A bar set so high is practically impossible to continuously hurdle, as the achievement is a by-product of its own relative moment in history. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain had lived and were still churning out albums? It would be pleasant to think the twelfth record after In Utero or something thirty years after Are You Experienced would still be regarded as genius craftsmanship, but likely each would similarly not live up to our own desires and nostalgia. It’s an annoying thing to wrestle with for certain, but at a minimum, it was still an excellent show.
Last Living Souls
Tomorrow Comes Today
Every Planet We Reach is Dead
Humility w/George Benson
Superfast Jellyfish w/De La Soul
On Melancholy Hill
Broken w/Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Strobelite w/Peven Everett
Hollywood w/Jamie Principle
Garage Palace w/Little Simz
Stylo w/Peven Everett and Bootie Brown
Dirty Harry w/Bootie Brown
Feel Good Inc w/De La Soul
Sweepstakes w/Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo?)
Kids With Guns
Song 2 w/Graham Coxon
Don’t Get Lost in Heaven
File photo by Raymond Flotat