Welcome to “Plastic Beach”

Wednesday Oct. 27. Thousands of people wait in and around the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Citywalk, surrounded by the flashing lights of gaudy tourist traps. Men and women in nautically-themed stripes and captain’s hats mill about, eagerly awaiting the night’s performance to begin. A girl in striped stockings and a paper cat mask talks to her friend in a military beret and a belt made of machine-gun bullets. They file past hundreds of other wannabe sailors and pirates, making their way into the theater.

There is only one band that could attract an audience that is as eclectic as its own music: Gorillaz, the cartoon band created by artist Jamie Hewlett and musician Damon Albarn. Albarn, a musical mischief maker ever since he gained fame with Blur in the Nineties, has yet again put together a tour with enough famous, diverse and talented guests to make any music geek faint from excitement.

Since “Plastic Beach” was released earlier this year, Albarn and Co. have been on a whirlwind tour around the world, headlining at Glastonbury in England, Benicassim in Spain, Coachella here in California and gigs from as far and wide as Syria and Lebanon. Wednesday night, with opening band N.E.R.D kicking off the show with a rocking, exciting set, Gorillaz performed at a caliber that Los Angeles concertgoers have come to expect – and  they exceeded all expectations.

What’s different this time around with the Gorillaz live show is the visuals. In the past, Albarn and the rest of the performers would hunker down behind a screen, while Hewlett’s cartoon rockstars took the stage as projections on a screen. Now, the audience still gets glimpses of Murdoc, Noodle 2-D and Russell, the characters that  fans have grown to love, but in much smaller doses. Before the show began, before the encore and after the show had ended, a 30-second video clip of the band would play, showing a frustrated Murdoc Niccals locked inside his dressing room with 2-D and a robotic replacement for Noodle. The change in the set-up is refreshing because fans got to see Albarn live and in person and see the puppet-master in action as he brought his show to life.

Kicking off the night with “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” and a video performance by the legendary Snoop Dogg, the band seamlessly rolled through tracks from each of their previous albums – the zombie anthem “Last Living Souls” and the pop 2001 hit “19-2000,” during which Albarn was joined onstage by Miho Hatori, the Japanese vocalist who originally stars on the track as the voice of Noodle, the cartoon band’s guitarist.

They transitioned quickly into “Stylo,” the first hit from “Plastic Beach,” with rapper Bootie Brown filling in for Mos Def and the great Bobby Womack belting out his part with the perfect blend of heart-wrenching soulfulness and pure vocal force. “On Melancholy Hill,” another track off the latest album was a more peaceful and innocent song, with lyrics creating images of plastic trees and manatees in a far-off cartoon land. Following it up were the electro beats and megaphone vocals of “Rhinestone Eyes” and the cheeky food-inspired rap of “Superfast Jellyfish,” featuring part of the rap group De La Soul.  A surprising performance of an older track, “Tomorrow Comes Today,” filled the amphitheater with a hauntingly melancholic vibe as Albarn’s sorrowful voice and playful melodica echoed through the audience.

This transitioned effortlessly in to the next track, “Empire Ants,” starting off with Albarn singing over the slow buildup and piano and keyboard. The track also featured the delicate and beautiful crooning of Little Dragon singer Yukimi Nagano, who sings the lyrics to the synth-laden electronic half of the song.  Yukimi also joined Albarn on stage during “To Binge,” a heartfelt and simple duet about love and longing between the two of them.

As if the roster of guest musicians up to this point hadn’t been breathtaking enough, with Albarn being backed by Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, Albarn topped himself by bringing up rock legend Lou Reed on stage, who sang on “Some Kind of Nature” in his signature monotone deadpan voice.

One of the most exciting songs performed was “Dirty Harry,” the Afro-funk dance track that features a choir of children singing the chorus and the rap interlude from Bootie Brown. The song had every single audience member dancing along.
It was clear that Albarn himself was having the time of his life too. “Why do I look like I’m enjoying myself?” Albarn joked with a smile in between songs. “I’m not. I hated every minute of it.”

The audience was then treated to the surprise of being present for the second live performance ever of their new single “Doncamatic,” which features the amazing vocal stylings of British singer Daley.

Albarn’s love of Middle Eastern music was a highlight of the night as he introduced the members of the Syrian National Orchestra, who brought some ethnic flair to the rapping of “White Flag.”

Albarn was in rare form during the spastic, energetic burst of “Punk,” during which he thrashed about on stage, slipped in a puddle of water, knocked over his microphone stand and then continued on with a foolish grin on his face. It was pure entertainment.

The set ended with “Plastic Beach,” the title track off the last album, a crescending and repetitive track about the detritus and garbage washed up in the middle of the ocean that has formed the “plastic beach” of trash that the members of Gorillaz inhabit. Inarguably the best part of Wednesday’s show was seeing Damon Albarn come to life alongside his creation. Seeing him jump onstage and douse the audience with water was eerily reminiscent of his Blur days, when he could jump into a crowd of fans and return to the stage missing his shirt. That’s why it was so nice to see him feeding off the crowd’s energy and coming out from behind the curtain to see the faces of the people who  love the music he and his collaborators have created.

The encore kicked off with Bobby Womack on the soulful and achingly beautiful “On the Cloud of Unknowing,” which then worked in to the absolute climax of the night with “Feel Good Inc.,” the song that undoubtedly introduced most people to Gorillaz.  The roaring laughter of Maseo (from De La Soul) triggered a roar of excitement from the audience, as they struck every note of the hit song with perfection. They followed this up with the only logical song, the drugged out drawling anthem of “Clint Eastwood,” again highlighting Albarn’s beloved melodica.

The night ended with “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven/Demon Days,” creating an almost spiritual feeling throughout the theater, as the orchestral and choral splendor gradually built up with the uplifting power of a preacher’s sermon. The almost religious grandeur of the song was the perfect way to end the night.

And just as quickly as it had started, the journey ended with Damon and his trusty crew of musical pirates departing and setting sail for their next destination. The night was a visual and musical spectacle, a grandiose experiment that resulted in pure auditory bliss for all fortunate enough to experience it.