Gorillaz at the Fox – Humanz Tour 2017

It all began late one night on a post-gym trip to Seven Eleven for a bowel ravaging snack. I was just pulling into my parking spot when the ad came on over the radio. I was about to kill the engine, but then I heard a voice. The kind of raspy, gargled, English accented voice your mother warned you about. Murdock. I then immediately decided that whatever was about to come out of that cartoon goblin’s mouth was more important than satiating my own hunger.

The Gorillaz were coming to town.

I’ve been a fan of the Gorillaz ever since I first saw the Feel Good Inc. music video back in 2005. I remember being completely blown away, not only by how distinct the sound was, but by the of quality (for 2005) and the use of CG and traditional animation in the same piece. As an eleven-year-old who spent a sickening amount of time watching cartoons rather than learning a skill, the Gorillaz quickly became one of my favorite groups.

Tickets were being released slowly, in small quantities, and at odd times of the day. This made things difficult for anyone who didn’t spend their day staring at a monitor for a living as tickets became available – lucky me! In retrospect, however, I may have been better off not clicking “first available” and not spending roughly $400. But I digress.

Foxtown was booming that night. The Pizzarena was having its grand opening with Kid Rock, and traffic was reduced to a crawl. My friend Nick and I made it to the Fox with minutes to spare.

But then it happened.

Our tickets were no good. I felt sick. I hurried over to the help desk to make my case that the tickets were genuine and that I had the receipt to prove it. As it turns out, my tickets were indeed genuine, but the concert wasn’t for another three days. It was that kind of moment where, despite more logical explanations, you become convinced that the universe itself altered its state of being for the sole purpose of making you look like an idiot.

Seventy-two hours later, Nick and tried again with much more success.

Seated in the absolute back of the venue, we had an amazing view of the entire theater as well as an extremely irritating view of hundreds of bright iPhone screens Snapchating and Instagraming the opening act. I can’t help but wonder how many people spent the kind of money I did and didn’t watch the show in front of them with their own eyes. Sad.

M1A1

The intermission was over. The stage was set. The lights went out and the crowd went ballistic. M1A1 was a good song to start on; it starts out lowkey and builds to a crescendo to hype the crowd for what was to come. M1 is a well known motorway in England, as it A1. They intersect just south of Aberford.  As was to be expected of the Gorillaz, the silhouettes of the animated personas were introduced in a dynamically choreographed visual display on the screen at the back of the stage. We were in for a show!

Last Living Souls

Excluding Intro – the unsettling cacophony that kicks off Demon Days – Last Living Souls is the first real song on the album, and dialed back the energy just a bit. I could never help but feel like a lot of dystopic titles lost out on not using this song to promote their movie or game. This was also the first song of the concert that showcased the six-man chorus that was on stage. The video that played on-screen was of two men with a stereoscopic effect trudging through a desolate wasteland. Many fans of the Gorillaz interpret the song as the beginning of the journey through the dead world built by the album, making it all the more appropriate to be played as one of the first pieces preformed.

Saturnz Barz

Perhaps the most popular and most pushed song from their new album, Saturnz Barz came up third. The official music video has nearly 50 million views as of April, and an edited version featuring Popcaan was played during the performance. Popcaan’s lyrics take some deciphering, but from what I’ve come to understand, the song tells the tale of a man who raises from poverty to prosperity through his music, as well as another man (played by Damon Albarn’s character, 2-D) who seems to be “stakin” Popcaan to pay off a debt and likely intends to kill him for money. If that sounds like a leap of faith, that’s because it is. Despite the hurdles I had with interpretation, I really like this one. It was two district sounds and two district perspectives just like Feel Good Inc., my favorite.

Tomorrow Come Today

An oldie but a goodie; the third track of the very first album. Tomorrow Comes Today was another downshift in tone from the high-energy Saturnz Barz, but was a real crowd-pleaser all the same. For visuals, the band ran a mostly unedited version of the original MTV music video. It isn’t often that I say this, but this song is better when heard live.

Rhinestone Eyes

The immediate reception this song received may have been louder than when the concert began. The lights on stage popped into a bright green and slid to red to match the color of hues of the storyboarded music video that was, sadly, never fully realized. The popularity of this song, it seems, lay in the fact that this song is very significant to the lore of the Gorillaz universe; something that I am not particularly knowledgeable of, but not something that I couldn’t remedy with a quick trip to the wiki page afterward. In a single run-on sentence, the imagery depicts the band’s discovery of the titular Plastic Beach, the battle between the Gorillaz and the villain “Boogieman”, and the return of Noodle after she’d gone missing (presumably after the events of El Manana) and was subsequently replaced with a cybernetic replica (I call her Newdle).

Does the replica go Bladerunner on them afterward? Hard to say.

Though many Gorillaz fans have seen the video dozens of times, it was still one the most memorable performances of the night.

Sleeping Powder

Only the second “new” song played that evening, Sleeping Powder is distinctively a Gorillaz song; being one of only about half the songs on the Humanz album in which Albarn is the predominate singer. I might be misremembering this, but at one point during the song, as the official music video played on-screen, animated pills spun and flew at the viewers. Just in case the message of the song wasn’t clear to anyone.

On Melancholy Hill

Canonically, the events of On Melancholy Hill predicate those of Rhinestone Eyes, so I was a bit perplexed as to why they’d play it afterward – not that I’m complaining. Before the song even starts we get the introduction of the ship that Noodle is on, being attacked by pirates. People lost it – as hard or harder than they lost it when Rhinestone Eyes started playing – once Noodle’s mask was shown. I understand that there’s a certain charm to watching a 90lb girl shoot WW2 era aircraft out of the sky with a full-auto Tommy, but getting that hyped to see a video you’ve seen a hundred times on YouTube seems silly.

In any case, the fact the Rhinestone Eyes was played first had me worried that this song won’t be on the line-up. It is, in my opinion, the best song on the Plastic Beach album. It’s just a simple, short love song with the kind of obscure lines that only the Gorillaz can deliver.

Not sure what the deal with the manatee is, but that’s neither here nor there.

Busted and Blue

Following the sober tones of On Melancholy Hill, Busted and Blue rode the drop-off in energy further down into what I’ve come to interpret as a social commentary. The mentioning of lithium (commonly used in treating bipolar disorder), echo-chambers, and being “asked by a computer” in the lyrics seems to be a reference to the despair and depression typically experienced by those who spend an excessive amount of time online and on social media. That’s all mostly speculation on my part, but it feels very overt.

But only a few seconds into the song, something amazing happened. People in the crowd, rather that filming the concert with their phone, held their phones up like lighters and began swaying. The meme quickly spread, effecting nearly half of the entire audience. I resisted as best I could, but eventually fell under the trance of the hypnotic motion of peer pressure and the visuals of entire galaxies passing by in deep space. The song was new and mostly unknown, but those moments easily made it one of the most memorable songs of the show.

El Manana

Although the lights had suddenly gone from darkness to red and blue cycles to mimic police sirens, the reception to El Manana was fairly tame as it was with Busted and Blue. Perhaps too many lowkey songs in a row? As was the case several times before, the entirety of the animated music video was played. The song itself is reverent, a trend that is found among many songs in the Demon Days album. The video depicts the supposed death of Noodle, who (obviously) made a triumphant return in the following album five years later. I was not bothered by this choice, only by when it was chosen to be played; jumping around the timeline just annoyed me a bit.

Superfast Jellyfish – with De La Soul

We were finally scooped out of the sulking trough of somber tunes and thrust into the fast-lane of Superfast Jellyfish. De La Soul waltzed out from stage left and the rock concert morphed into the rap-rock hybrid Plastic Beach was known as, performing Superfast for the first time since 2010. A homage to fast-food and waste, Superfast Jellyfish brought all the lost energy back to the crowd with a barrage of mock restaurant advertisements. We even had an arm-swaying thing going for a while. It all made me hungry.

Ascension – w/ Vince Staples

Call it a hijack of the platform the Gorillaz provides, but I was really not a fan of this song.

All the energy from Superfast Jellyfish was still very much alive and well, but that energy was channeled into political commentary. Everyone’s entitled to their own take on the zeitgeist, but I think we all get enough of it during working hours on the “news”.

And that one line, “Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me”?

What are you saying, Vince? Don’t you look like you? Why you got to keep people down?

Strobelite – w/ Peven Everett

Like Ascension, this is not a Gorillaz song that can be immediately identified as such. Without Albarn as the lead singer (or at least singing the chorus) or prior knowledge of a song, chances are I’d never guess a song was done by the Gorillaz. Unlike Ascension, this song was good.

The stage lighting really stood out for this song as well; vertical and horizontal flashes created an amazing geometric effect that made the band look like they were in a box. The song itself seems to just be a glamorization of the night-life and clubbing in general. I hadn’t heard of Peven Everett before this, but he made a real impression. It is a shame that they nixed the music video for this song, instead flashing colors in a grid formation – maybe to draw the focus to Everett? Considering that I’ve since been listening to his work, I’d say he deserved it.

Andromeda

The stage became purple and pink, giving it the same esthetic as the planet represented in the Andromeda music video. At this point, it became clear to me that the band wanted to whet the crowd’s appetite with the classic before they went all in on the new stuff. It wasn’t nearly as hopping as the song before it, but it wasn’t putting anyone to sleep either.

To those with knowledge of astronomy, Andromeda is the nearest galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy. But while the visuals in the music video are inarguably referencing this fact with a large, nameless, gaseous planet shown throughout (not shown during the performance), the song as actually written in honor of Albarn’s wife’s mother, who died as the song was being written. Though the song isn’t all that sad – rather, it conveys a more celebratory tone. Perhaps to preserve her memory in a positive light?

Sex Murder Party – With Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz

I’m sure Sex-Murder Parties are commonplace among celebutantes, but it’s a bit striking that anyone would want to get on stage and flaunt it. The title of this song is like something an angsty 14-year-old would listen to and the lyrics are like something those same angsty 14-year-olds might write. When the word “murder” is sung 49 times over the course of 260 seconds, you might think to yourself, “Hmm. What is the writer of this song trying to say here, and why?” I think “Abandonment Issues” would have made a better name for this song. Thumbs down.

Out of Body – Zebra Katz

After Sex Murder Party, I wasn’t quite feeling like I was at a Gorillaz concert anymore; but little did I know that things were about to get a lot creepier. A recording of Kilo Kish came up on screen and I thought, “Alright, she’s about to lay into something good.”

She begins, “We’re here tonight for a very special offering. An offering of our spirits this evening in unison. But first, a word of instruction.” The beat begins and hypnotic visuals swirl behind her. I had to check my ticket stub to make sure I hadn’t accidently walked into a cult meeting. Fortunately, nobody offered me Kool-Aid or “ascended” from what I could see from my seat.

Garage Palace – w/ Little Simz

Officially, this song “features” Little Simz. In reality, this song was just Little Simz pacing back and forth for three minutes while the spotlight followed her and the rest of the stage and the band was dark. I paid to see the Gorillaz play their music, not to see Little Simz sing something that didn’t even make it into the Humanz playlist.

Kids with Guns

As if somehow aware of my three strikes policy, the stage was alight again and the actual “band” came back into play with one of their most icon hits. The crowd seemed to share my sentiment, giving the most earnest cheers that they’d given since Superfast Jellyfish. The visuals, albeit, were about as exciting as the music video itself: Outlines of various firearms. But that didn’t keep me and many others from singing along to this timeless classic.

I’m inclined to believe this song is a message about gang violence but a similar argument has been made about military recruitment. Granted, kids can’t join the military and the guns depicted in the song aren’t exactly standard-issue in the armed forces. Considering the song is from Demon Days – an album with a dystopic theme and corruption close to home – I’m probably right.

Either way, I was glad to hear more of the old stuff.

We Got the Power – w/ Jehnny Beth

Without even knowing that We Got the Power was the last long on the Humanz album, you do get a sense of finality from it. An obvious choice for the “last song” of the Humanz tour performances; its optimistic, jovial, and Jehnny Beth’s voice matches with Albarn’s like coffee with salt (don’t knock it). What I did find off-putting, however, is the choice of pairing the visual a bustling motorway, congested with traffic during rush hour (from the music video) with a song that’s telling you that you can basically do anything. Maybe it’s intended to be ironic? Regardless, it was a song that was unmistakably Gorillaz – a subtle collage of assets and themes from other songs in the album. A kind of synopsis that most other Gorillaz albums have.

The lights came on and the crowd gave out an applause that was thoughtful yet reserved. Nobody was about to buy that that the show was over, and I wasn’t about to leave without hearing Feel Good Inc. It wasn’t long before the lights dropped once again. I crossed my fingers and held my breath. Surely everyone else’s love for Feel Good would have already predetermined the encore, right?

Stylo – w/ Peven Everett

Devastation.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea; this is in my top five, but when I heard the thump of that funky synthwave and saw the sight of that Camaro’s bumper with the word Stylo my heart sank while the crowd exploded. Stylo is the Feel Good Inc. of Plastic Beach, as I see it, but it just isn’t Feel Good.

As I listened, however, I was amazed at how alike the live performance was to the studio edited version. My disappointment melted away and I quickly got into the groove. Bobby Womack and Mos Def, it seemed, could not attend the show to sing their parts. So who comes from back-stage to fill the part? Peven Everett. The one featured artist from Humanz that I liked, and that just killed it with Strobelite, was out singing Stylo? That was pretty alright. I also realized that Bruce Willis was in the music video – I don’t know how that had gotten past me before.

Full discloser: I don’t go to a lot of shows. In concerts past, bands have come back out for one extra song to appease chanting fans. In an age where Marvel puts a little something extra at the end of every movie, I’ve come to expect that the end of the show isn’t always the end. But I couldn’t be prepared for what was about to happened next.

De La Soul came back on stage and had a playful exchange with Albarn – affectionately referring to him as Murdoc (that confused me a bit at the time). “Detroit!” He exclaimed, as he began to stretch his neck and shoulders, as if bracing himself for something. At that moment, I realized that, in fact the encore had not ended. Then it happened. Soul let out a loud, bellowing laugh.

Feel Good Inc. – w/De La Soul

Dreams do come true.

The one song I absolutely needed to hear live, the song I’ve loved since its release was playing out right in front of me, music video and all. Going back over the videos I took, I can actually hear my own cheers over the roar of the audience and the booming speakers. Soul and Albarn rocked the house; Albarn put in his work in the second verse and the chorus before Soul jumped in and wrecked face in the third and fifth all while providing supporting vocals. The first chorus even got its own applause. It was unreal. My goal had been achieved, a bucket-list item stuck down.

In hindsight, I guess I really shouldn’t have been so afraid that Feel Good Inc. wouldn’t be played – being that it is the bands most beloved song. Encores are, after all, the grand finally where you bust out the big hits. But the thought of going without was too much at the time. I thought for sure the show was over now.

Clint Eastwood

But the rock just kept rolling.

This one came as a complete but pleasant surprise to me. Clint Eastwood is probably the only other Gorillaz hit that even comes close to matching Feel Good Inc. in its popularity and recognizably of its music video, even though it came first. Del The Funky Homosapien was only present as a recording, unfortunately.

What this song did have on Feel Good was audience participation. More people were singing along from start to finish than any song before it. Russell’s ghost got cheers, the dancing Gorillas got cheers, even the line “It’s all in your head” was cheered for. The contentment and gratification in the air was palpable. At this point, I wasn’t sure just how long the band was willing to indulge the audience. How far were they willing to go? What was left?

Don’t Get Lost in Heaven / Demon Days

[I lumped both of these songs together because, as I see it, they are two halves of the same song.]

One’s about a cheating woman and the other is a poetic commentary about the world at large (presumably). The last two pieces were equally lowkey and softened the hype that had been unleashed by the encore. The stage was kept dark from one song to the other. It was as if the band was toning things down while the six-man chorus sang us to sleep after a long day of play. On screen, we were treated to a stylized stained-glass mock up that depicted the animated band members in an evangelized glamor. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect end to a most excellent concert.

No songs from The Fall album though. I wonder why…

The Gorillaz thanked Detroit, Detroit cleared the Fox, and Nick and I discussed the show over Crack Fries at Hopcat before finally heading back. He and I both got what we came for; Nick got his Clint Eastwood, and I got my Feel Good Inc and a $20 24×36 keepsake that any reasonable person would have bought online for $12. Before the show, I could count the number of groups I’d pay to see live on one hand; and now, having seen the Gorillaz at the Fox, that’s still the case (It’s just a little easier). The best things in life might be free, but the occasional expensive memory can be just as good.

If I had only one regret, I guess it would be in finding that the Gorillaz aren’t actually cartoons – that part of my life has been a lie.

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