Sunday, July 09, 2017

Damon Daze: Under Albarn's Auspices, Gorillaz' Audiovisual Blast Creates Something of a Hyperkinetic Blur -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening acts Little Simz, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Huntington Bank Pavilion
at Northerly Island, Chicago
July 8, 2017

Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to see Gorillaz--for whom I bought tickets when they went onsale in April, so this wasn't a last-minute whim--is because I love Blur.

Ordinarily it might sound rather strange to see one band due to an affinity for another, but in this case both acts are led by the same singer and chief songwriter, Damon Albarn.

Along with Oasis, Blur became one of the two top Britpop bands of the 1990s, but unlike their rivals they were primarily huge in the UK and, except for the "whoo hoo!" rush of 1997's "Song 2," never became superstars in America.

I was familiar at the time with heralded albums such as 1993's Modern Life is Rubbish, 1994's Parklife (Blur's masterpiece) and 1997's self-titled record, but not then smitten enough to try to see them as they hit the Metro, Riviera and Vic, or even the Congress Theater as late as 2003.

But at least since catching wind of--and then hearing and watching full concert videos of--massive reunion shows in the UK in 2009, 2012 and beyond, I've become a rather rabid Blur fan.

I know the band toured a good bit in 2013 and 2015--the latter in support of a fine new album, The Magic Whip--but never came closer to Chicago than Mexico City, Los Angeles or New York (in October 2015) and I wasn't in a position to travel to see them.

While vaguely familiar that along with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn created Gorillaz--initially a band represented by the cartoon personas of Murdoc, Noodle, Russel and 2D--I really didn't pay attention to 2001's self-titled debut album or three subsequent ones prior to this year's Humanz.

I was oblivious to a 2002 Gorillaz show at the Aragon that supposedly had Albarn and other live musicians hidden behind a scrim of animated projections, and only rued not catching them in 2010 after learning that Clash legends Mick Jones & Paul Simonon were among the touring musicians, along with the now-passed R&B crooner Bobby Womack.

Yet while I came to understand that in incorporating hip-hop, rap, house, R&B and other musical stylings--and featuring numerous guest vocalists--Gorillaz is sonically quite unique from Blur, my high regard for Damon Albarn motivated me to get a pair of tickets with my pal Dave.

Though Saturday's show at Huntington Bank Pavilion is officially the first of the Humanz World Tour, a setlist from a June Gorillaz show in Germany suggested they might play the new album, largely in full and in order, along with just a few earlier tunes.

In good measure, Spotifamiliarizing myself along these lines served me well, as 10 Humanz songs were performed along the lakefront, including the catchy opener "Ascension," for which rapper Vince Staples was on hand to reprise his album vocals.

But accompanied by many fine musicians, background singers and guest vocalists--including British rapper Little Simz, who opened the show--Albarn mixed up the order of the new album's songs and played a number of other tunes unfamiliar to me.

You can see Gorillaz' Chicago setlist here, including a delineation of guest performers. Though some of the selections were undoubtedly more rabidly enjoyed by others in the sold out crowd--I doubt Blur would bring this many people out in Chicago--I liked a great deal of what I heard, augmented by striking visuals throughout.

If one never knew of Gorillaz' original animation conceit, other than occasional glimpses of Murdoc, Noodle, Russel and 2D on the video screens behind Albarn & crew there wasn't much to suggest this wasn't simply a traditional live concert, albeit with a lot of people, sights and sounds.

Though I was glad to see Albarn front & center for much of the night, he served more as a master of ceremonies, frequently ceding centerstage to singers such as Vince Staples, Jamie Principle (on the excellent "Sex Murder Party"), Pevan Edwards (on "Strobelight," another highlight from Humanz) and others.

But when Damon sang lead, particularly on more plaintive songs such as "Rhinestone Eyes," "Busted" and "El MaƱana," I found my mind happily Blurring, or referencing Albarn's 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots.

Including encore renditions of "Stylo," "Kids with Guns" and "Clint Eastwood," as well as Albarn speaking quite graciously about Chicago--which he said infused a good deal of the new album--the hyperkinetic concert offered a whole lot for me to relish.

One of my favorite singers sounded in fine voice on some terrific tunes and--amplified by all those on stage with him--illustrated the great diversity of his songwriting and musical talents. While I rued Humanz' terrific "Momentz" being omitted from the setlist, much of the music was far different than what I typically hear in concert--but a welcome change of pace--and the sensory blast was often quite dazzling.

I am neither surprised nor dubious that the Tribune's Greg Kot,, Facebook friends and others at the show seemed to like it even more than I did.

It didn't help that, with unraised seats near the back of the grounds of the makeshift amphitheater, I was often hard-pressed to see and/or make out much of what was happening onstage.

Unfamiliarity with some of the music is no one's fault but mine, but I can't say I loved every minute of it and--perhaps due to all the guest vocalists and the imprecise pacing of a tour's first show--found my emotional connection a bit disjointed.

As such, I can't suggest that I relished my first live Gorillaz experience as much as fantastic recent shows by U2, Midnight Oil, Metallica and others.

Or, I feel safe in presuming, Blur.

I can't deny hoping that Albarn--who was loquacious throughout but only referenced his other work by saying he'd been "coming to America since 1990"--might see fit to ramp up "Song 2" in realizing it'd been a long time since Blur played Chicago, but that didn't happen.

And I wouldn't be shocked if most of the crowd didn't even know "Parklife."

So it's to Damon Albarn's credit that he's now quite clearly conquered America, and not just behind a cartoon alter ego.

For many, this Gorillaz show may have been all they ever wanted.

For me, that it was the next best thing--on both entry and exit--is good enough.

At least for now.

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