REVIEW: Gorillaz at United Center

British virtual band Gorillaz came to United Center in Chicago for their world tour ahead of upcoming album “Cracker Island.”

A little background on Gorillaz – the project was co-created in 1998 by musician Damon Albarn (known also for being frontman of indie rock band Blur) and artist Jamie Hewett. Albarn makes the music while Hewett develops the animations; both created the virtual band members together – 2-D, Noodle, Murdoc Niccals, and Russel Hobbs. The virtual band’s storyline is told through music videos, cartoons and comics. Albarn originally based the music for Gorillaz on what he felt wouldn’t fit the stylistic palette of Blur, branching out into territories like hip hop, dub and electronica. Many of the band’s songs and albums incorporate social and political commentaries on topics such as pop culture, money, technology, the environment, war and human spirit.

Their eponymous debut album was released in 2001, enlisting Dan the Automator as producer. After Albarn returned to focusing on Blur for a couple years, Gorillaz released their second album “Demon Days” in 2005 – produced by Danger Mouse – which would become their most commercially successful album to date. Then in 2010 Gorillaz released their third album “Plastic Beach” where they took on more of a synthpop approach. Fourth album “The Fall” was released in 2011 and was written while the band was on the road touring “Plastic Beach.” After six years, fifth album “Humanz” (co-produced by The Twilite Tone and Remi Kabaka, Jr) was released in 2017 and was conceptualized around Donald Trump winning the presidential election, which at the time the album was written still seemed unlikely. Gorillaz’ sixth album “The Now Now” (co-produced by James Ford) was released in 2018 with Ace from The Powerpuff Girls joining the virtual band. During quarantine in 2020 Gorillaz began their web series “Song Machine” which featured new singles and videos, culminating into seventh album “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez.” Their eighth album “Cracker Island” is set for release next March; its lead single “New Gold” featuring Tame Impala and Bootie Brown was just released at the end of August.

Gorillaz are highly collaborative in nature and have featured dozens of artists on their albums. The list includes but isn’t limited to Snoop Dogg, Del the Funky Homosapien, Little Dragon, Georgia, De La Soul, MF Doom, George Benson, Kelela, Bobby Womack, Gruff Rhys, Peter Hook, D.R.A.M., Leee Jon, Schoolboy Q, Roots Manuva, Jehnny Beth, Bootie Brown, Lou Reed, Kano, Shaun Ryder, Danny Brown, 6lack, Fatoumata Diawara, Pusha T, Popcaan, Kali Uchis, Grace Jones, Vince Staples, Ibrahim Ferrer, Mavis Staples, Slaves, St. Vincent, Elton John, Yukimi Nagano, Anthony Hamilton, Zebra Katz, Mos Def, Benjamin Clementine, Robert Smith, Beck, Octavian, Slowthai, Bashy and Jamie Principle. Current touring members are Mike Smith, Karl Vanden Bossche, Jesse Hackett, Jeff Wootton, Seye Adelekan, Remi Kabaka Jr and Femi Koleoso.

Opening for Gorillaz were Atlanta-based hip hop act Earthgang, which is the duo of Olu and WowGr8. They hyped up the crowd with immense energy, bringing an electric, soulful flavor with lots of crowd interaction. They performed a bunch of songs from their 2019 album “Mirrorland” and a couple from 2017 album “Ghetto Gods” in addition to a Snakehips cover and a song they originally did with Louis the Child. Earthgang appeared on “Opium” from Gorillaz’ 2020 album “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez” deluxe edition. It was an explosive performance that really kicked the night off on the right note.

Gorillaz’ set on Monday was a magnificent blend of old and new material. They played a balanced mix of hit songs and deep cuts, opening with “M1 A1” from their debut album which was followed by “Last Living Souls” off “Demon Days.” All the songs I remember listening to in high school and thinking were the coolest and most fun songs ever – “Rhinestone Eyes”, “Tomorrow Comes Today”, “19-2000”, “Empire Ants”, and “Dirty Harry” – got played with plenty of whimsical, imaginative animations of the virtual band on various adventures. A couple songs from “The Now Now” and “Song Machine” were played as well. Albarn brought out a number of guests throughout the set including Bootie Brown, Peven Everett, Earthgang (for “Opium”), and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Their set concluded with the “Plastic Beach” title track. The band returned for a four-song encore comprised of “New Gold” (with Bootie Brown), “Stylo” (with Peven Everett), “Feel Good Inc” (with De La Soul) and “Clint Eastwood” (with an extended outro by Sweetie Irie).

Finally seeing a band you’ve revered for a decade can be surreal and it can be emotional, and especially for an act that’s defied stylistic pop norms for as long as Gorillaz have, needless to say it’s a hugely fulfilling experience for anyone to see them for the first time. Gorillaz are one-of-a-kind and I’m super glad to have had the opportunity to see them. They’ve never played in Milwaukee…maybe one day that’ll change.

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