11th August 2021
There’s a distinct carnival buzz in the air tonight as Damon Albarn kicks off Gorillaz’ Song Machine tour with the second of two dazzling nights at O2 London, with a stream of international special guests.
The crowds have been pouring into the O2 for more than three hours, clutching their covid-free certification, for the majority the first time they’ve been this close to so many people in many, many months. The pent-up energy in the packed out O2 is palpable, invigorating, emotional. A massive scream as the arena goes pitch black, huge red “HELLO”s burst onto the three giant screens, the high energy punk of M1 A1 tears into the place and the crowd shakes off its covid shackles as one massive jumping body.
This energy doesn’t let up for well over two hours of 31 songs. Surrounding himself with a live band of percussionists and backing singers, plus the Mangrove Steel Band in tribute to the Notting Hill Carnival (cancelled for the second year running), Damon’s smile barely leaves as he introduces his guests one by one, each contributing to his vision of, potentially endless, eclectic collaborations of music. And you know you’re in for a good night when a legend like Robert Smith appears, resplendent in a sparkling black shirt, to sing Strange Timez just one song into the show.
Robert Smith paves the way for indie heavyweight Peter Hook (Aries), Jamaican singer Popcaan (Saturnz Barz), Imagination’s Leee John (The Lost Chord), rapper Pos from De La Soul (Feel Good Inc), hip hop due Earthgang (Opium and Stylo – the latter featuring Bruce Willis on the giant screen), and Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder and Rowetta for Dare. There’s also Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara (Desole and Hong Kong), grime artist Jelani Blackman (Meanwhile) and Jamaican Alicai Harley for the world premiere of De Ja Vu. Slowthai appears for the exuberantly punk Momentary Bliss, with some frenzied crowd diving from Slaves, and of course, Little Simz features on Garage Palace and Gorillaz debut, and perhaps best known, song, Clint Eastwood. One of the outstanding highlights of the night has to be the riveting voice of Fatoumata Diawara.
Devoted Gorillaz fans (presumably mostly those currently going for it in the standing area) are kept happy by a constant supply of Gorillaz classics including 19-2000, Dirty Harry, Rhinestone Eyes, Tomorrow Comes Today, El Manana, Plastic Beach and finisher Demon Days. And probably barely notice they don’t know the two new songs, distracted as they are by the sudden appearance of exuberant flags, steel drums and Alicai Harley’s gigantic white furry hat.
By the end of the show, Damon seems overwhelmed, holding his heart and sinking to his knees to lie on the floor, where he stays for a while.
Seeing Gorillaz live and on this scale, in London’s second largest music venue, it’s amazing to see how it has evolved from Jamie Hewlett’s two-dimensional cartoon-based concept band to this vibrant, three-dimensional joyous celebration of global music. A welcome evolution too, especially now after the past year and a half – “I feel like you’ve come back so much stronger,” says Albarn, and it really does feel like things can only get better from here.
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All words and photos by Naomi Dryden-Smith – Louder Than War | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | portfolio
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