Last Night: Gorillaz and N.E.R.D at the Verizon Theatre

Gorillaz, N.E.R.D
Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie
October 20, 2010

Better than: an evening spent watching the Cartoon Network.

Roger Caldwell
Damon Albarn, triumphant at last night's Verizon Theatre show. For a full slideshow from last night, click here.

Shame on anyone who expected a cartoonish display from Gorillaz last night.

Sure, Damon Albarn and his band of pranksters still provided a spectacle--but this was one of an entirely different and head-spinning sort.

Until this tour, Gorillaz has always been something a charade, the brainchild of former Blur frontman Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, which finds four personable, if also somewhat demonic, cartoon characters serving in the place of real performers. Previous tours have kept this act going, hiding all actual musicians away from the house lights, and placing emphasis on video screens that, much like the band's music video output, kept the animated "performers" in the spotlight.

But for the band's first-ever world tour, which comes in support of this year's Plastic Beach, a disc that finds Gorillaz deviating from its past formula and heading into even more undefinable territory, Albarn has decided to fully pull back the curtain.

And revealed behind it? A revelry-filled circus of sorts featuring cameos left and right (both on video screen and in person), no fewer than 42 different performers offering time-to-time contributions and, most valiantly, an engaging frontman who has been hidden from view for far too long.

Roger Caldwell
The vibrant stage set-up.

The performance, which clocked in at just under two hours, started off by setting the stage for the show's running gambit, offering a clip of the animated Gorillaz (Murdoc, 2D, Noodle and Russel) warming up and awaiting their performance from their supposed backstage dressing room, wondering why their warm-up bands were still playing and, later, why their dressing room was locked. The bit continued throughout the night, even showing up one last time after Albarn and his fellow musicians walked off the stage following a four-song encore.

But Albarn and his collaborators, chided as they may have been from an illustrated figment of their imagination, are no openers. Openers don't employ string ensembles, horn ensembles, vocal ensembles, Arabian music ensembles. Openers don't find two members of The Clash--guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon--agreeing to tour the world as part of a backing band. Openers don't bring legendary R&B singer Bobby Womack on tour. Openers don't get to bring De La Soul on the road with them, either. And, almost certainly, they don't get Snoop Dogg and Bruce Willis to film cameos to be projected onto their stage's video screen adornments.

Roger Caldwell
Paul Simonon

More than anything, this display felt like a coming out party, and a celebration.

When Albarn, three songs into his performance, already having strutted and skipped across stage with glee, and beaming like a schoolboy all the while, greeted the crowd with a short, "Nice to see you," he did so indeed with a wink and a smile. Gorillaz, perhaps unjustly, has been dismissed in the past for its cartoonish origin; but just as the international press has clamored over Plastic Beach's diversions, it seems high time the actual musicians get their due credit.

Gorillaz certainly were aiming for as much last night: Because of its production value and its audience's embrace, the whole show felt like a giant MTV Video Music Awards performance crossed with the hysteria of a European soccer match. Albarn, ridiculously engaging with his emotive and (ahem) animated on-stage movements, gave the audience no choice but to remain entertained, bringing out guest vocalists, guest rappers, and employing his various backing ensembles to varying degrees over the course of the night in head-spinning fashion.

Musically, it similarly engaged: Gorillaz's music has always been a blend of pop, rock, funk and hip-hop, and, at this performance, it continued as such, with Plastic Beach's more atmospheric and esoteric offerings providing ample pace-change and transition, along with some welcome injections of electronica.

If this show, which, make no mistake, will go down among the year's best, had a flaw, it was that perhaps it was a bit of sensory overload. But that complaint seems moot--especially considering that all the pomp and circumstance did was further distract from Albarn's creative genius. Albarn, after nearly a decade in Gorillaz, has finally revealed himself--but only with all these distractions around to keep him, to some degree, still hidden among the clutter.

Maybe that was the point, though. Maybe the sly smile Albarn wore all night was an admission of guilt--that, though he's finally pulling back the curtain, he also isn't. Maybe, the message was, there's more to come.

Count us among those looking forward to that.

Before Gorillaz's set before a nearly capacity crowd, N.E.R.D opened the evening, their performance starting in front of a mostly empty arena. Cleverly, the band employed this as a chance to unveil its new material, stocking up its bigger hits, "Rockstar" and "Lapdance," for the end of what, too, would turn out to be a high-energy, endearing display. Credit frontman Pharrell Williams, too, for properly warming up this crowd: During "Lapdance," Williams rattled off one of the more humorous The-Man-is-keeping-us-down rants we've heard in some time, engaging the crowd all the while and even getting the majority of the arena to pogo-jump in unison as the song came to an end.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
Almost none; Gorillaz, to me, have been largely a band heard through osmosis, their earlier efforts too popular too ignore. Plastic Beach hasn't quite followed that path, and, after hearing other positive reviews, I sought it out, curious to hear it. It's a bit of a grower, but a rewarding listen nonetheless. After last night's show, though, Albarn and Co. can officially count me as a fan.

Random Note: One of the more entertaining crowd moments from last night came when Albarn passed a massive white flag out to the audience members in the pit, to be swung around like fans at European soccer games do. At first, there was confusion amongst the pit--and then someone grabbed the flagged and sprinted throughout the entire arena, the flag billowing out behind him. Upon returning to the pit, a security guard tried to catch him and kick him out--only to be booed by the audience and to have Albarn make a point of finding the audience member and shaking his hand.

By The Way:
Nothing against security guards--they have a job to do, I understand--but this one security woman at Verizon is kind of out of control. Last night, she tried to kick a guy out for enjoying himself at the show and for doing something the band and entire crowd approved of, and, a few weeks back at the Pixies show, she vocally berated, like, three different people sitting in her section for accidentally spilling their drinks, and threatening to kick them out. Let people enjoy themselves, lady. Seriously, I don't go to the Verizon Theatre all that often. I shouldn't remember you. And yet I do.

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