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When I logged into the first virtual gig of my life, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I felt the pre-show excitement in a somewhat muted sense – as much as I could, anyway. Usually, the train journey and the buzz of being in the city with thousands of other fans just as excited to see performed the albums they’d been obsessed with for the last weeks – or years – serves as a great warmup. When the band finally walks on stage at a traditional concert, the buzz is palpable.
This time, though, I was skeptical. How on earth were they going to justify the £15 price tag of a ticket for a mere livestream? There are many thousands of live shows on YouTube available to watch for free, at any time. Usually, I skip around and watch the songs I am most interested in; I cannot remember the last time I sat through an entire show. There will always be a crucial piece of the puzzle missing when viewed through the lens of a computer screen.
I am happy to report that Gorillaz – Live from Kong succeeds magnificently with its experiment. The visuals are an assault on the senses, in the best way possible. The large empty warehouse in which the show takes place is full of props, clutter, slogans, and of course the cast; since ‘band’ would be downplaying the role of the fantastic musicians in and around the stage. Every song conveys its mood heavily – vibrant colours on the large display screen behind the stage show a mix of music videos and some of the guests featured on the album.
The real treat, though, is seeing how the many guests featured on the album turn up in various ways over the course of the show. Robert Smith from The Cure helps open the show on ‘Song Machine: Strange Timez’ with it’s sparse, skittering instrumental building around Albarn’s verses. The thick, bassy groove of ‘The Valley of the Pagans’ with a hologram-Beck completes the one-two punch opening the show. The band were extraordinarily animated – no pun intended – and I spent some time captivated by the twin drummers, exhibiting pin-sharp accuracy and laying down the backbone of the whole crazy show before my eyes.
‘Pink Phantom’ epitomises the magic and genius of Gorillaz, combining the talents of 6LACK with Elton John – two artists that couldn’t seem to have come from more different musical lineages. 6LACK’s autotuned vocals are emotional and heart wrenching; while a holographic John’s powerful, echoing vocal lines cut through the shimmering piano swirls engulfing the empty auditorium. It is a cathartic moment that seemed to reach through and envelop me in a warm glow that only the best gigs can provide.
‘Aries’ is a personal highlight, with New Order’s fantastic Peter Hook accompanying on bass. ‘Accompanying’ seems like an injustice, as his signature driving tones propel the song forward, complete with the classic splashy gated reverb drum sound his band utilised so well in the 80’s. This is just one more in a long line of homages to Albarn’s personal heroes, and it truly comes to life on the stage.
‘Désolé’ and ‘Momentary Bliss’ represent the initial two singles from the album and constitute my personal favourite tracks on ‘Song Machine’. ‘Désolé’ builds wonderfully, the smooth bassline leading the song to an orchestral climax. Contrastingly, the sparse ‘Momentary Bliss’ shatters the calm of the previous songs and ramps up the intensity with quite possibly the best guest performance coming from the brilliant Slowthai; for my money the most important recent breakout star in the UK. He bounces around the stage like Bez, with Slaves’ stabbing, punky guitar chords accompanying his burning verses over an infectious bassline. The intense atmosphere created on stage is captivating.
It should be noted, it is at these moments in the show when I was most enthralled that I was painfully reminded that I was sat at home, watching through my computer screen. It was easy to be swept up and lost in the moment, but as much as I would have loved to fully lose myself in the show, the physical constraints just about prevented this from being possible. The fact that I couldn’t just get up and dance or be swallowed by the music and the visual feast felt like a bit of a comedown. This is through no fault of the excellent show – in fact, it is a testament to how engaging and enjoyable it was to watch that I was only reminded infrequently of the circumstances outside my control.
After the first non ‘Song Machine’ track was played which closed the main set (the Demon Days classic ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’, performed at a satanic altar by Matt Berry amidst an eerie, tribal instrumental), the band moved to a more intimate acoustic stage to perform some older material to wrap up the show. I particularly enjoyed ‘Last Living Souls’, long a favourite Gorillaz song – however this brief section fails to reach the lofty heights of the main set. Without the visual pizazz and rich instrumental backing, the songs don’t captivate to the same extent. An acoustic stage, in my opinion, works far better in a live setting. However, the final song ‘Clint Eastwood’ starts with just Damon, a reminder of the key thread that ties the whole act together.
Throughout the whole show, he seems content to sit back and let his guest stars and the quality of the music shine through. He occasionally takes the spotlight, playing off his guest stars and taking the camera on a tour around the stage. While his dancing may occasionally remind of a drunk uncle at a prepaid open bar karaoke night, his presence is always welcomed. For this final song, he slows everything down for a stolen minute to have a one on one with the audience; like a drummer taking the tempo right down right before the final solo. It is a moment quite unique to a show like this and creates the illusion that you are being spoken to directly, something that would be near impossible in a traditional live show.
He explains how he used the instrumental found in a throwaway plastic piece of kit to create the iconic ‘Clint Eastwood’, moments before the entire band launches into a fast, frenetic and intense version of the song to close the showdown. This is the final moment of visual and auditory madness, as the guest stars, the band and the crew are all on camera and the chaotic stage provides the final scene of what has been a gig quite unlike any other. I enjoyed it hugely – and while 15 pounds is steep for any live stream, I would jump at another opportunity to see the band like this and I will be first in line when they return to the stage for real.