BOSTON — "Hello, is anyone there?" a voice echoed through the PA system as the house lights went down for Gorillaz's first U.S. "concert." It brought to mind the line, "Is there anybody out there?" from Pink Floyd's The Wall. But as the cartoon characters that comprise Gorillaz began to swirl on a stage-to-ceiling screen which formed its own wall between the speakers, the question on the minds of the 2,000-plus fans packing the Avalon Ballroom Monday very likely was, "Is anyone IN there?"
The answer quickly came when the opening song, "M1 A1," kicked into gear, and vaguely silhouetted figures could be seen onstage behind the lower scrim. But more tellingly, the punk clamor of "M1 A1" conveyed the clear flesh-and-blood thump of live instruments, and the voice of Blur moonlighter Damon Albarn yelping "thousand miles an hour" like a ghostly nod to Jonathan Richman's Boston rock anthem "Roadrunner."
Based on advance reports of the show, which unfolded over the next hour in the same song order as pre-American dates, many fans expected to see more action onscreen than onstage — and didn't care. "I won't be able to see anyway," Karen Pfefferle said near the back of the sold-out club, while her Boston compatriot Kerry Collier, also 29, said, "It's different, and it's something new."
Indeed, Gorillaz take the concept of the Archies or Josie and the Pussycats to another level, as a virtual band for the post-skateboard generation, conceived by "Tank Girl" cartoonist Jamie Hewlett. Fans seeking animated stimulation on the tour could be disappointed, though. The only outright Gorillaz cartoon came at the encore break, as the evening's main eye candy was a collage of still images mixed by eight slide projectors at the back of the room, next to the DJ booth where Gorillaz collaborator Dan "The Automator" Nakamura spun before the set, then watched the show (another DJ worked onstage as part of an eight-piece touring band fronted by Albarn, the only principal player from the Gorillaz album to perform onstage).
In turn, the visual element wasn't overdone, and was well synched to the music — suggesting some programmed rhythms behind the live band, which wielded more of a rock wallop than Gorillaz's platinum CD debut. Gorillaz images floated with woodpecker heads in an eerie scroll to dub soundscape "Sound Check (Gravity)," while a mechanical gorilla's feet came down to each beat of "Dracula."
The energy of the packed room sagged during some atmospheric tracks. Fans perked up for catchier tunes such as the loping "Re-Hash" (before which Albarn yelled for the crowd to "make some noise") and the hit "Clint Eastwood," fueled by sharper silhouettes including the figure of Jamal the Last Emperor. Jamal filled in for Del the Funky Homosapien with a pair of spirited raps (Redman and members of D12 also may appear for cameos Thursday at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom).
"Tomorrow Comes Today" and "Clint Eastwood" were repeated in an encore that padded the show to 70 minutes. Ben Blanchard, 28, of Boston said he was a little disappointed overall. "Where's the beef? I could have sat home and watched videos and listened to the record."
Nonetheless, given their clout, Gorillaz may have a future on the stage, possibly even at an arena level. "It was better than I expected," said Joe Carmody, 23, who drove from Southington, Connecticut. "Too bad it isn't bigger, like an Omni Max."
Read about all of the shows we've recently covered in Tour Reports.