The first night of a multi-date stand can either be a rousing success or a total train wreck. In the case of Gorillaz’s run at New York’s Apollo Theatre, it was a little bit of both. How would they pull off showcasing a cartoon band on the stage of the most famous theater in the country? Will they use holograms? Screens? Will actual human musical accompaniment be veiled behind sheets a la Disney’s “Fantasia?”
Much to the delight of the sold-out opening night crowd, it turned out that the Gorillaz band, complete with full string section and a bevy of surprise guests, was front and center on that legendary stage. They were accompanied by a half-dozen large screens, with the center one meant to project the outstanding animation of co-creator Jamie Hewlett.
They even hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create muppets of “band members” 2-D and Murdoc (fellow Gorillaz Noodle and Russel, unfortunately, were conspicuous in their absence). They sat perched in the Apollo balcony, presumably in tribute to the two old men from “The Muppet Show,” providing a killer monologue at the top of the show and would spontaneously pop up throughout the concert when the grooves got extra nasty.
Unfortunately, the screen visuals were on the fritz on night one, as Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn announced when apologizing for the technical glitches that delayed the show for almost an hour. However, the strength of the ensemble’s live performance was dynamic enough for complete forgiveness in lieu of any cartoon accompaniment, as Gorillaz turned in an absolutely sublime stage rendition of last year’s “Demon Days” album.
By the second night, the visuals were up and running and when the third night came around, they were nothing short of mind blowing, a wonderland melange of Fleischer Brothers-inspired propaganda toons and Chuck Jones productions. Just about everyone who made cameos on the record showed up to lend a hand, including Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, Ike Turner, Bootie Brown from the Pharcyde, Roots Manuva, Martina Topley-Bird and the gorgeous Rosie Wilson (who also sang backing vocals throughout the night).
It was a joy to see Neneh make a most welcome return to New York City, looking more beautiful than ever before as she danced her way through “Kids With Guns.” She made the song her own with a killer finale that reassessed her puzzling under-utilization in the song itself. MF Doom turned in his cameo in the form of a video of himself rapping the words to “November Has Come,” which was pulled off in a cool enough way to make you forgive his absence.
Turner received a legend’s welcome when he walked up to an upright piano to bust a killer solo during “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead.” De La also came through with their take on the Houston bounce on “Feel Good Inc.” (better on night three than opening night) while Topley-Bird and Roots Manuva looked as though they were lip synching their parts of “All Alone.”
But it was Miss Wilson’s escort to centerstage, former Happy Mondays/Black Grape charge Shaun Ryder who received the most welcome ovation from the audience prior to a rousing version of “D.A.R.E.”
The response was second only to the posse of local Harlem school kids who sang and danced their way through “Dirty Harry” as if the Sandman from “Showtime at the Apollo” was watching their every move. Also repping the block was a Harlem gospel choir, who pogo danced during the rave thrasher “White Light,” featuring a film montage of what looked like the most drugged-out hobo hippie headbanger they could find.
But their vocals were saved for the album’s closing suite “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” and the transcendent title track. It was a union of soulful expression soaring high against the Revelations-themed animation accompaniment that provided a mightily contrasting bookend to the Daffy Duck/Porky Pig short that opened up the concert.
It would’ve been cool to see Gorillaz do a little more with their guests at the end of the show, especially considering that Cherry and Ryder haven’t made appearances on American shores in almost a decade. But in fact, the encore was just fine, as Albarn, hidden throughout the evening behind the rhythm section, came out front and center to perform Gorillaz’s gorgeous contribution to the most recent “War Child” album, “Hong Kong.”
The night ended with a beautiful run through the sole track performed off the first Gorillaz album, the classic “Latin Simone,” in tribute to the late, great Cuban crooner Ibrahim Ferrer, who passed away in 2005. Film footage of the Buena Vista Social Club legend recording the song in the studio appeared on the big screen as a pre-recorded track of his uncompromising voice filled the theater like a ghost.
By the third night, any remnants of a shaky opening night were quickly forgotten. But the question still remains as to why in the world aren’t these guys on Adult Swim yet? Let’s just hope some of those bigwigs at Cartoon Network were in attendance to see what they’re missing.