“Thousands of people all communing together – what a wonderful feeling,” Damon Albarn tells the packed crowd at London’s The O2. Finally, after more than 500 days, the 20,000 capacity venue has reopened its doors with no restrictions in place. If you ignore the smattering of masks and hand sanitiser at strategic points, inside is a scene as close to normality as we’ve had in the last 18 months – a united sea of people dancing, swaying and putting their phone lights up as Gorillaz do their thing.
Tonight (August 11) is actually the band’s second performance at the venue, having played a special show for NHS workers the night before. There are – as always at Gorillaz gigs – a raft of famous friends on hand to help out, starting with The Cure’s Robert Smith on ‘Strange Timez’. A few songs later, Peter Hook pops up for the New Order-y ‘Aries’ and Popcaan brings a burst of energy on ‘Saturn Barz’.
Perhaps it’s a case of having to blow away the cobwebs for the crowd, but the atmosphere in the arena is fairly sedate for much of the first half of the set. Sometimes that feels appropriate – as with the twinkling beauty of ‘On Melancholy Hill’, still one of Gorillaz’s best songs – but as the cameos move away from legit icons into younger blood, so the audience’s levels rise.
EARTHGANG begin to elevate things with the dreamy shuffle of ‘Opium’ before passing the baton to rising west London rapper Jelani Blackman. He features alongside London’s Mangrove Steel Band on ‘Meanwhile’, a new song previewed tonight that capture the spirit of carnival the vibrant optimism of the steel band underpinning his confident bars. Then comes Little Simz, a raucous ball of energy urging people to get up out of their seats and move on the pulsating ‘Garage Palace’.
Minutes later, Simz is replaced on stage by Shaun Ryder and Rowetta for ‘Dare’, completing the show’s build into celebration mode. From here on in, the room is fixed in a feeling of euphoria, reinforced by the punk clatter of ‘Momentary Bliss’ when guests Slaves (Slowthai, who also features on the song, is not present tonight) throw themselves into the crowd. Normal service has very much been resumed.
Over the course of the night, Gorillaz take us on a journey through their last 20 years – some parts a nostalgic commemoration, others pinned to the present. There are songs that still show their relevance today, such as ‘Plastic Beach’, before which Albarn bemoans the world’s use of “too much plastic”. The encore is, for the most part, a jubilant look back, riotous versions of ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’ bringing the night to a close.
Things falter a little when Albarn attempts to bring all the band’s guests out for one final round of applause and it seems like another song is on the way, only for them to anti-climactically shuffle off stage again, but Gorillaz’s return is mostly a joyous return to big gigs and the power of live music.
‘Strange Timez’ (with Robert Smith)
‘Last Living Souls’
‘Aries’ (with Peter Hook)
‘Tomorrow Comes Today’
‘Saturnz Barz’ (with Popcaan)
‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’
‘Kids With Guns’
‘The Lost Chord’ (with Leee John)
‘Désolé’ (with Fatoumata Diarwara)
‘On Melancholy Hill’
‘Opium’ (with EARTHGANG)
‘Meanwhile’ (with Jelani Blackman and Mangrove Steel Pans)
‘De Ja Vu’ (with Alacaì Harley and Mangrove Steel Pans)
‘Garage Palace’ (with Little Simz)
‘Dare’ (with Shaun Ryder and Rowetta)
‘Momentary Bliss’ (with Slaves)
‘Stylo’ (with EARTHGANG)
‘Feel Good’ (with De La Soul’s Pos)
‘Clint Eastwood’ (with Sweetie Irie)
‘Don’t Get Lost In Heaven’