We’re used to seeing Damon Albarn cry on stage with Blur: he’s done it in Hyde Park, he’s done it at Glastonbury. You suspect that he might have squeezed out some tears on Saturday, in Margate, when Gorillaz – and friends, and friends of friends – descended on the Kent seaside town for the once-in-a-lifetime Demon Dayz festival, had it not been too utterly joyous to muster up any tears.
If there was any thought that this might be just your average festival, they were quashed soon after entering the gates of retro fairground Dreamland, where druid-like demons stalked through the crowds in black robes and punters queued for up to two hours to ride on a rollercoaster so endearingly tame it’s called the Scenic Railway. Dreamland’s carpark became the main arena for the day, with a huge stage and warm-up acts including Kano, whose ‘T-Shirt Weather In The Manor’ landed hard with a crowd basking in baking heat.
Elsewhere, in the ultra-sweaty Red Bull / Hall By The Sea stage, Danny Brown thrilled a huge crowd with the madcap ‘Ain’t It Funny’, and the day saw sets from De La Soul, Little Simz, Vince Staples, Kilo Kish and Popcaan, many of whom would pop up during the headline set.
Mostly, Demon Dayz felt like the moment that Gorillaz truly dropped the pretence of being a made-up band and became something totally human. This is a band – in loose terms – whose early albums were married to strong narratives about its fictional, semi-simian members, and whose early shows saw the band performing behind sheets as cartoons reeled away on screens.
Now, there’s no pretence that this is Damon’s baby. On stage, he’s never seemed more energised and focused, whether wild eyed during the propulsive ‘Charger’ or giving a thumbs-up and a grin to someone dressed as the band’s cartoon frontman Murdoch while stalking the pit during ‘Dirty Harry’. He could be found screaming into a voice-changer during ‘Last Living Soul’ and ‘Stylo’, the latter’s throbbing synth bass a reminder that highlights of Gorillaz’s back catalogue go way deeper than ‘Clint Eastwood’ and the early singles, and a moment to pay tribute to Bobby Womack, whose image was placed in the circular screen up top throughout.
Albarn was playful with his band and vocal with the crowd, commenting on “a beautiful day”, “a beautiful place and beautiful people”, and addressing the political chaos of the preceding days. “It’s been a weird week in this country,” he said. “A real surprise and then an inevitable bullshit outcome. But this is only the beginning cos there’s some of you out there who weren’t able to vote this time but next time you’ll be able to vote. It’s going to grow.” He also admitted he’d fallen asleep on the beach that afternoon.
Best of all was the way Albarn interacted with the string of guests – some familiar faces, some less so – each of whom got a big bear hug or their hand held aloft, like a boxer after a KO. There was Zebra Katz, a striking figure in his disco gimp suit, Kali Ucuis, who left Albarn grinning like a schoolboy, and Kilo Kish, whose playground rhymes on ‘Out Of Body’ gave the joyous experience of being at an aerobics class for the under-fives. Little Simz, who’d flown in especially, spat scattergun raps over an almost jungle-like beat on brand new, previously unheard track ‘Garage Palace’, while Kano’s appearance in ‘Clint Eastwood’ was a reminder that Albarn was supporting grime talent long before the second wave kicked in.
De La Soul’s Maceo launched ‘Feel Good Inc.’ with that throaty, booming laugh, and Shaun Ryder appeared for ‘Dare’, proceeding to Shaun Ryder the hell out of it by inserting the word “fucking” into the lyrics where possible, messing up the timing and asking, “Am I done now, can I just fuck off?” as the outro still played.
In a show filled with highlights, the close of the main set saw Albarn’s Blur bandmate Graham Coxon and Savages singer Jehnny Beth take to the stage for the utterly rousing ‘We Got The Power’, which saw Beth toss her shoes aside and dive into the crowd. It summed up what Albarn went on to describe as an “enjoyable loving afternoon and evening- cos god knows we need them.”
If, for years, it’s felt like Gorillaz secretly or not-so-secretly means more to Albarn than Blur, or his solo career, or any of his myriad exploits, Demon Dayz was him lavishing all the love on his pet project, with a hard-to-repeat line-up of guests and a stage turnover that felt like you were watching a party unfold.
Albarn’s “co-conspirator” Jamie Hewlett got a shout-out towards the end (“He’s over there by the mixing desk, he’ll draw each of you a picture later,” said Albarn) but the message from this event was this: Gorillaz are bigger and better than any conceit or gimmick. This was a night when Albarn’s creative and collaborative talents were on fire – and when that happens, nobody can beat him. The only thing missing was a few tears.