There was a British orchestra dressed up as Russian sailors. A New York City rapper made up to look like Abraham Lincoln. Members of the Clash wearing captain's hats. A Swedish-Japanese singer performing barefoot. A high-stepping brass ensemble from Chicago. What can we say? When
On Friday (April 30), Damon Albarn unleashed his animated all-stars on a sold-out crowd at London's Roundhouse theater (a performance streamed live on MTV.com) and he spared no expense, filling the stage with a seven-piece string section (the Sinfonia ViVA), a blaring army of horns (Chicago's Hypnotic Brass Ensemble), a massive backing band (that included former Clash-men Mick Jones and Paul Simonon) and more than a few special guests — all gathered together to perform tracks off the Gorillaz' new Plastic Beach album.
It was a show that was equal parts fierce and fragile, nasty and pretty, boomingly loud one minute, achingly quiet the next — sort of like the album itself. Things kicked off with the hushed strings of the Sinfonia and a beamed-in appearance from Snoop Dogg, who appeared on a video screen dressed as a sea captain and strutted his way through the Beach intro "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach."
Then the full Gorillaz ensemble launched headlong into the throbbing "Stylo," featuring vocals from Bobby Womack and the mighty Mos Def (who rapped through what appeared to be a C.B. microphone). That was followed by the dreamy "Rhinestone Eyes," which saw Albarn finally step to the front of the stage — he had spent the first portion of the show tinkering with a piano in the background — while electronics chimed and wooshed around him.
The show then segued into quieter fare — "Broken," which got a soulful boost from the Hypnotic Brass and the Sinfonia, and "Empire Ants," featuring Little Dragon frontwoman Yukimi Nagano on vocals. The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music was trotted out for an extended, intricate jam, a transcendental few minutes that crashed right into "White Flag," featuring hyped-up cameos from Brit rappers Bashy and Kano (and Albarn waving an actual white flag).
A thumping, super-electro take on "Superfast Jellyfish" was up next, with frequent Gorillaz collaborators De La Soul serving as frontmen (and Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys singing the hook). Then Mos Def appeared once again — decked out in a stovepipe hat that, when coupled with his chin beard, made him look a whole lot like Abraham Lincoln, even if that wasn't the intended effect — to serve as a sort of carnival barker on "Sweepstakes," backed by the powerful Hypnotic Brass.
As the crowd cheered wildly, Albarn again stepped to the front of the stage to duet with Nagano on a bittersweet "To Binge" and, after a few tender moments, Womack emerged again to perform a moody "Cloud of Unknowing," the penultimate track on Beach.
And then, it was over — a breakneck hour filled with highlights, all directed by Albarn. As the band exited the stage, he looked happy, but exhausted. And who can blame him? This, after all, was a show.