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Live Review and Photo Gallery: Gorillaz at United Center • Chicago

| October 4, 2022


Gorillaz: L to R:  Seye Adelekan and Damon Albarn


United Center, Chicago, IL

Monday, October 3, 2022

Review by Jeff Elbel. Photo Gallery by Curt Baran.

Four years to the month after bringing The Now Now Tour to Chicago, Gorillaz ringleader Damon Albarn brought his live bandmates, guest performers, and cartoon avatars for a return visit to the United Center on Monday. The local stop on the band’s juggernaut world tour featured a setlist that leaned heavily on the band’s first three albums but also offered glimpses of next year’s Cracker Island.

Despite the punky Britpop blast of “M1 A1” from 2001’s self-titled debut album that opened the show, Gorillaz’ multi-platinum arc represents a thorough reinvention and departure from Albarn’s sound with ‘90s alt-rock heroes Blur. Gorillaz’ heavily collaborative music fuses electropop, synthpop, R&B, Latin, world music, dub, rock, and hip-hop, featuring a plethora of established and up-and-coming guests. 2010’s Escape to Plastic Beach tour at UIC Pavilion featured soul icon Bobby Womack, Rosie Wilson, and the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. 2017’s date at Northerly Island during the Humanz tour included appearances by Little Simz, Zebra Katz, house music pioneer Jamie Principle, and early collaborator Del the Funky Homosapien–just to name a few in the menagerie.

Albarn’s eleven-piece band was augmented on Monday night by guests including rapper Bootie Brown, Atlanta-based hip-hop duo and opening act EarthGang, and De La Soul. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and DJ/soul singer Peven Everett provided support as Chicago-based musical heroes.

Albarn leaned heavily upon the charismatic presence of his longtime Gorillaz touring bassist Seye Adelekan at stage right, clad in Bulls jersey #22. Jeff Wootton was a featured player on guitar at stage left, wearing a pink shirt and white pants festooned with black zippers. The livewire musician bounded energetically during the frenetic chorus of “Momentary Bliss” and other favorites. Albarn himself was simply attired in a dark t-shirt and baggy pants.

Albarn prowled far and wide, depending upon the song. While singing “Tranz,” the frontman scaled the front barrier and balanced on top while clasping hands with fans in the front rows. During “19-2000,” Albarn broke the fourth wall entirely. He reached into the 100-level seats to commune with fans before wading deep into the standing-room-only crowd on the floor. On stage, a choir of five singers repeated the song’s loopy and irrepressible “get the cool shoeshine” chorus.

Released as a single in June, the title cut “Cracker Island” was familiar to many fans who bounced and sang along to the fresh material. The song’s robust R&B bass groove was originally recorded by Thundercat, and was performed at United Center by Adelekan. Albarn clowned around with his bandmate during the song and broke out laughing mid-verse.

Albarn moved to piano for “O Green World,” performing as images of ecological ruin filled the large screen overhead. “Oh, green world, don’t desert me now,” sang Albarn. Delicate verses alternated space with a lumbering riff driven by Femi Koleoso’s powerful drumming and Adelekan’s thundering bass, as Wootton’s guitar threw sparks.

The soulful but melancholy “Broken” sailed to stirring heights when joined by the eight-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who collaborated on 2010’s Plastic Beach album. The group returned later to close the main set with the title track, “Plastic Beach.” Albarn praised the band members as local treasures and longtime friends. Looking to trumpeter Gabriel Hubert, Albarn asked, “We’ve done some crazy shit, right?”

Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett’s animations featured the band’s virtual personae, stylized as a post-modern and somewhat dystopian response to the ‘60s bubblegum-pop cartoon band The Archies. The audio and video elements combined with frequent shifts in personnel to create a show that moved at a rapid clip and held even the most attention-deficit attendees’ rapt interest.

“Skinny Ape” was a second new cut, not yet released as a single. The song appeared to be sung from the perspective of the cartoon band’s guileless and scrawny singer 2D. Albarn’s winsome melody rested atop drummer Femi Koleoso’s restrained rhythm, Jeff Wootton’s afro-pop guitar, and Mike Smith’s simple synthesizer hook until the song erupted into a euphoric frenzy.

EarthGang rallied the crowd during “Opium.” “Hope the radiant light is shining on you,” sang the pair, echoing the positivity that marked their own original material during their opening set. Next, Everett reprised his Humanz album role with a soulful vocal on the club-friendly R&B crooner “Strobelite.”

“This song has a bounce in it,” said Albarn while introducing “Andromeda” and buttering up the crowd. “You should bounce better than anyone else because you’re Chi-town!” he added.

Gorillaz covered six of the band’s seven albums released to date. Additional highlights included the debut album’s “Tomorrow Comes Today” featuring Albarn’s reedy melodica, “DARE” from Demon Days, and “Rhinestone Eyes” (sung by Albarn into a palm-sized CB radio transmitter) and the lilting “On Melancholy Hill” from Plastic Beach. Deep cuts and major hits alike were performed with conviction.

An encore performance of “New Gold” joined by Brown marked a third Cracker Island teaser. Everett returned to offer powerful vocals during “Stylo,” taking the place of the late Womack who had joined Gorillaz’ 2010 visit to UIC Pavilion. The video screen featured images of band avatars Murdoc and 2D, desperate and on the lam in an overstressed hot rod, pursued by bounty hunter Bruce Willis. Guests De La Soul stoked the audience to a fever pitch with an affirming call-and-response manifesto that wryly included the dutifully echoed line, “I will never (I will never) let anyone (let anyone) tell me (tell me) what to say (what to say).” The hip-hop duo then joined Albarn on rowdy vocals for the smash hit “Feel Good Inc.” Albarn played his familiar, echoed melody on melodica for debut single “Clint Eastwood.” The energy spiked even higher when reggae singer Sweetie Irie appeared for a revved-up coda. The crowd sang and swayed joyfully as Gorillaz brought the two-hour concert to its satisfying conclusion.

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