Watching Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn on the melodica Saturday night (Sept. 16) at Meadows, blowing through the mid-tempo dub of early single “Tomorrow Comes Today,” it strikes you just what an unlikely festival headliner the band truly is.
Early on in their development, the band’s cartoon setup and innovative animation was fairly novel, and their lively, creative music videos made them a relatively unavoidable fixture of MTV (and MTV2) in the waning days of such omnipresence still being possible. But in 2017, the visuals and videos don’t overwhelm or define Gorillaz the way they used to, and when they showed up in Queens last night, they kinda seemed like any other fully corporeal band playing at the fest — just with more members and higher concepts with which to deliver their proggy brand of alt-pop. It seemed like a potentially tricky sell to a young-skewing crowd, some of whom were likely being introduced to Albarn in the flesh for the first time.
Indeed, there was something of a feeling out process between crowd and performer for the set’s first half. After opening with riotous early rave-up “M1 A1,” Gorillaz mostly stuck to their slower material, like the post-apocalytpic Demon Days dub of “Last Living Souls” and “El Manana,” with the biggest injections of energy coming from the perkier Plastic Beach singles “Rhinestone Eyes” and “On Melancholy Hill.” It was always engaging, but it was also somewhat draggy, and you could certainly forgive casual fans for getting a little restless during the extended ambient balladry of beatless Humanz centerpiece “Busted and Blue.”
But following “Manana,” Albarn announced, “OK, we’re gonna take it up a bit now,” removing his jacket to demonstrate his point. And then sure enough, bounding onto the stage came legendary rapper Pusha T, to perform Humanz cut “Let Me Out,” quickly snapping the crowd to life. From there, the guests came fast and furious — the set really hitting its stride with Chicago soul singer Peven Everett’s asteroid-sized belting on the disco-tinged “Strobelite,” and the bathrobe-clad D.R.A.M.’s sweet vocal-swapping with Damon on the lithe shimmy of “Andromeda.” (D.R.A.M. bear-hugged his duet partner at the end, with Albarn exclaiming, “I wanna do that again!”)
Of course, in the most predictable cameo of the night — even if you didn’t see the band’s own pre-announcement of their guest list — De La Soul hung around for a couple hours after their own Meadows set, to assist Gorillaz on both groups’ biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, 2005’s “Feel Good Inc.” The performance was rapturously received, though perhaps less so than the T-shirt worn by the trio’s Vincent “Maseo” Mason, who made sure its message was clearly read by all: about President Trump getting the infamous Gas Face. “Excuse my French, but fuck him,” Maseo offered — without even breaking Albarn’s rule about not saying the man’s name out loud.
The band finished their set with fist-pumping Humanz closer “We Got the Power” — no Noel Gallagher, sadly, but with Jehnny Beth of Savages around to rabble-rouse on the chorus (and go crowd-walking at song’s climax), the anthem was still appropriately righteous. And unlike JAY-Z’s Day 1 headlining set, the fans got an encore: “Stylo,” featuring Mos Def and a return Everett appearance (filling in for the sadly departed Bobby Womack, who Albarn poured one out to beforehand) and a scorched-earch “Clint Eastwood,” with seemingly the entire crowd rapping along with Del the Funky Homosapien on his verses.
Towards the end of “Stylo,” you could see a smiling Albarn perched at his piano, happy to let his guests go at it front and center while he laid back in the cut. But despite this — as well as the frontman’s oft-stated wishes to increasingly blur into the group’s background as they evolve — last night was still unquestionably Damon’s show, as both star and director, and it ended as a smashing success for fans of all ages. “Show your love for one of the greatest entertainters in the world, Mr. Damon Albarn!” De La Soul raved after their “Feel Good” performance. They weren’t wrong, it’s just still sorta surprising they were actually admitting to it.
Last Living Souls
Tomorrow Comes Today
On Melancholy Hill
Busted and Blue
Let Me Out (feat. Pusha T)
Dirty Harry (feat. Bootie Brown)
Strobelite (feat. Peven Everett)
Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)
Sex Murder Party (feat. Jamie Principle)
Garage Palace (feat. Little Simz)
Feel Good Inc. (feat. De La Soul)
We Got the Power (feat. Jehnny Beth and D.R.A.M.)
Stylo (feat. Mos Def & Peven Everett)
Clint Eastwood (feat. Del the Funky Homosapien)