Demon Days closing night, Apollo Theatre, Harlem, NY, 4/6/06
The moment I heard about Gorillaz' 5-night residency at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, performing their album, Demon Days, in its entirety, I knew it was one of those "you'll regret it forever if you miss it," must-see events. Being their very first US appearance, it might even rank up there with "once in a lifetime."
And apparently I wasn't alone in that impression, considering rock royalty, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, passed me on the way in, and celebrity artist-director Julian Schnabel was visible in the balcony.
Celeb spotting aside, I was dying to know how Gorillaz would present the virtual rock band in anime skin. How would they meld Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett's cartoon characters with their live counterparts? Would Noodle sing her own songs? Would Russell bang the drums? Would Blur frontman and Gorillaz visionary, Damon Albarn, be visible on stage, or would he be playing off behind a curtain somewhere, completely obscured from view?
It seemed clear they'd be going with the cartoon guises, the moment life-size puppets Murdoc and 2D appeared in the balcony to get the crowd riled up. Next ran a suitably twisted cartoon of satanic bassist, Murdoc. Dressed only in a military officer's hat and hot pink thong - with Motorola RAZR wedged in the strap above one stubbly butt cheek - Murdoc banged out some cheerfully freaky circus carousel music at an upright piano. Um, smack-dab in the middle of a verdant, pastoral countryside scene. Did I mention the sheep? Yeah, sheep. In fuzzy, crocheted sweaters, no less, wandering serenely around him as he banged away, smiling devilishly. When Murdoc finally answers has madly ringing RAZR, he gives us a shifty-eyed, mischievous grin, and crows, "I can't talk now… I'm naked!" Next up, the openers. Who but a cartoon would open for a cartoon band? In an inspired move, they decided to kick it old school with a classic Warner Brothers' Daffy Duck and Porky Pig reel. Brilliant.
With this, the curtain went up, and to my amazement, the stage was overflowing with musicians. Though the Gorillaz are a 4-ape band onscreen, it took upwards of 40 people to bring the album, Demon Days, to life onstage. The band itself included 5 backup vocalists, two guitars, a bassist, a huge drum kit, and a second percussionist. Lucky bastards, the best seats in the house were had by the 20 some-odd members of the illustrious Juilliard Strings. Abandoning Grieg for Gorillaz, they rocked in their seats to the hip-hop beat of "Last Living Souls." At the center of it all sat Albarn, slouched over the keyboard of his upright piano at the very back of the stage, low-key and trying to remain anonymous. But all the while, he was the obvious leader in every way. The core of the whole shebang.
Yes, the video screen played images of the Gorillaz throughout the show, but I barely watched at all, what with the virtual parade of celebrity guests that filed on stage, song after song. Being a live performance of the album, Demon Days, from start to finish, the guest list was a virtual replica of the album's liner notes. Impressive that they all rallied around Albarn, answering his call. They must have instinctively known it would be something extraordinary.
First up was Neneh Cherry, fleshing out her role on "Kids With Guns," suddenly filling the void at center stage with a larger-than-life personality. On "Dirty Harry," Bootie Brown rapped, surrounded by a children's choir, complete with kids bustin' some hip-hop moves.
The moment I'd been waiting for arrived when De La Soul (oh… my… gawd!!!) burst onstage to tear the roof off the muthafunka on "Feel Good Inc." Pasemaster Mase's rhythmically manic laughter nearly stole the show.
Tough act to follow, right? Not if you're Ike Turner. Yessir, Ike Turner. On "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead," he banged on a piano like… well, I'll avoid the obvious punch lines (ouch!). Joyfully kitschy in a turquoise polyester jumpsuit spangled with Elvis-esque rhinestones, his ensemble was rivaled only by the glitter of his smile.
For "November Has Come," rap's masked superhero, MF Doom, made an appearance only via video. But we were rolling with the real thing again when Roots Manuva and an unnecessarily haughty Martina Topley Bird (the voice behind Tricky's "Christian Sands") took the stage for "All Alone," dressed in kimonos.
Though you may not know his name, you'd certainly recognize the face of the next guest, Shaun Ryder (of Happy Mondays), from the video for "DARE." His nostrils alone are rather unforgettable as Noodle, the spritely 10-year-old guitarist, dances around his lab-experiment-gone-wrong, grotesque head. Like somebody's drunken uncle in a Manchester pub, he seemed to be barely holding it together by a thread. Yet, he managed to pull it through without effort, the whole time smacking on a lollipop. Here, Noodle was given voice by backup singer Rosie Wilson, one of the most pleasantly surprising performances of the night.
Not big enough names for you? Hold on to your hats, folks. The next guest brought down the house. The moment Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) walked onstage, the applause were so uproarious that the show actually came to a hault. He marveled at the response, looking genuinely surprised by the reception.
Dennis approached a podium like a bashful preacher, as the Harlem Gospel Choir surrounded him with "oohs". He performed his spoken-word role from this pulpit, reciting the tale of "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head." It's a parable for our time and the sermon brought us to church - Gorillaz' stained glass windows and all. But it was the Harlem Gosphel Choir's vocals in the segue into "Don't Get Lost in Heaven," and finally "Demon Days," that really made us feel it. They began so beautifully that you could actually hear the audience utter a collective, "awwww." The album's final song, with its soaring gospel harmonies imploring us to "lift yourself up, it's a brand new day, so turn yourself around… to the sun," ended the album-length experiment on a high note.
All these guests are great, you say, but what of Damon Albarn? I loved watching him in the background, often invisible over the course of the night behind the parade of guests. It's as though he'd invited everyone to his party, and then sat back to enjoy the festivities unfolding. But there was no question he was the host of the evening, the driving force, the creative vision and guiding hand for the musicians.
The most hauntingly beautiful song of the night began the encore. And lo and behold, it was the one and only time over the course of the evening that Damon got up from behind the piano and grabbed the mic at the front of the stage. A song I'd not heard before, "Hong Kong," it featured Jenny Zeng on a traditional Asian stringed instrument (a zither?) that's plucked while laying on its back.
His voice was more true and strong live than in the recorded versions. His lyrics were a meditation on fame and the emptiness that comes from encounters with empty people, no matter how beautiful they may be. It's as though he was looking back over his career, giving us a glimpse of the unglamorous side. It was a lonely perspective.
Watching Damon come out from his hiding place was fascinating. He had been animated all night, bouncing on his piano bench. But once in the spotlight, he became bashful, often burying his face in the crook of his arm atop the mic stand. As the crowd cheered, he was like a little boy who'd been caught having some kind of forbidden fun. Between his low-key demeanor at the back of the stage, his bashfulness in the spotlight and his desire to let everyone else be the proverbial frontman, I wondered where the lead singer of Blur has gone. You know, the one with the infamous feud with Oasis, providing the British tabloids with so much fodder. It looks like that Damon Albarn is long gone. So much the better for us.
Interestingly, he ended the night with "Latin Simone," the only song he pulled out from the Gorillaz' first album. The vocals of Ibrahim Ferrer, legendary vocalist of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, were left blissfully intact, as the vdeo screen played a montage of clips from their recording session. Ina surprising move, Damon ended the song with a memorial message in Ibrahim's memory, and abruptly ended the show, lowering the curtains and lifting the house lights.
Post Script: So where's Noodle?
One of the most celebrated members of Gorillaz was conspicuously missing: Noodle. Miho Hatori (of Cibo Matto fame) is no longer the musician behind the monkey, but the official band lineup hasn't changed.
Noodle had her big moment in the most arresting video segment of the evening, during the plaintive "El Manana." In classic anime style, she sat at the base of a windmill atop a chunk of rock, floating through an ethereal dreamscape. Ethereal, that is, until military helicopters swooped down in slow motion, dropping bombs, and literally raining destruction down upon poor little Noodle's head. It was surprisingly compelling imagery. The tearful strings underscored Damon's plaintive singing and the images of destruction. Noodle looked so sad as her ship went down, and the floating island crashed and burned.
Poor little Noodle! But don't worry, they hadn't killed off her character. The pre-teen guitar virtuoso was back in time for the next song's video.