In an interview following the release of The Fall in 2011, Damon Albarn was quoted as saying that it was unlikely that Gorillaz, his collaboration with artist Jamie Hewlett, would put out another album. But times change, and after an even more improbable reunion when Blur put out The Magic Whip in 2015, Albarn announced in October of that year that he and Hewlett had begun work on a new record. The results of those efforts finally came out in April of this year with the release of Humanz, a 20-track tour de force that saw Albarn digging even deeper into the electronica and hip-hop influences behind the project, and deeper into the political climate (even though the album was recorded prior to the votes for Brexit and for Trump, parts of it seem almost prescient), than he ever had before. Along with the album came the announcement of a world tour, and the excitement was so high that the band’s stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion (not a small venue) sold out almost instantly, months in advance.
A Gorillaz show in 2017 is an absolutely massive production. First, there’s the huge video screen that fills the back of the stage, displaying Hewitt’s animations (which are, after all, an integral part of the band) and other imagery throughout the show. Then, there are the sheer number of people on the stage – in addition to Albarn (who sometimes played guitar, sometimes played keyboards, sometimes sang, and sometimes simply egged on the crowd), the main band at Merriweather consisted of twelve other people, including six backing singers, two keyboardists, two drummers, a guitarist, and a bassist. And then there is perhaps the most difficult part, filling in the extensive selection of guest musicians and working with them to schedule appearances. No doubt that at least some of the anticipation in every fan’s mind before the show was about wondering who Albarn would bring.
Two of Albarn’s guests for this show – rappers Danny Brown and Vince Staples – performed short opening sets before the band came on. Both returned during the Gorillaz set to perform their parts on two songs from Humanz, Staples on ”Ascension” and Brown on “Submission.” Other guests present included Peven Everett (“Strobelite”) and Jamie Principle (“Sex Murder Party”). Merriweather even got a premiere, as rapper Pusha T joined in for his first show of the tour with “Let Me Out.” Other musicians who couldn't make personal appearances, like Jehnny Beth from Savages, Popcaan, Kelela, and Mavis Staples, loomed large over the stage through pre-recorded vocals and video. The cartoon aspects of the band seemed to be downplayed, with Hewlett’s characters only appearing during some songs, but Albarn and company held the audience so rapt that it almost didn’t matter.
The result was an almost flawless summer evening, showcasing both the new album and a selection of songs from the band’s previous albums, including “M1 A1” (which opened the show), “19/2000,” and “Clint Eastwood” from the band’s 2001 self-titled debut, “Last Living Souls,” “DARE,” and “Kids With Guns” from 2005’s Demon Days, and “Rhinestone Eyes” and “On Melancholy Hill” from 2010’s Plastic Beach.
Where Albarn will head next is almost impossible to say. Another round with Blur? (yes, please.) A follow-up to his 2014 solo debut Everyday Robots? More from everyone’s favorite cartoon band Gorillaz? Or possibly even another project entirely? Wherever his muse takes him, it will surely be worth following along.