When you apply for tickets for a secret show, it’s never with the actual belief that you’ll get them. And when you get the email, it’s with an incredulous hand that you buy yourself a couple. Even when sat on the tube, printed tickets in hand, there’s still a lingering suspicion that this is all a hoax – you’ve been shipped along to the holy hall of Printworks on a Friday night by a joker after a quick fiver. After being ushered directly from the tube by hi-vis jackets, scanned through the ticket barrier and stood in front of the stage, I still couldn’t quite believe we were here to see Gorillaz play live for the first time in 5 years.
At almost 9pm on the dot, a dark figure moves to the piano at the back of the stage and begins to play improvised beats from an iPhone. Eventually, he welcomes us and, to the surprise of no-one and everyone, it’s Damon Albarn. What follows is slick, smooth and undeniably impressive. Overwhelming and energising. Tender and bold.
Set and album opener ‘Ascension’ reintroduces the band to 2017 – they’re dancier than ever before. Gorillaz, as a cartoon band, have always been able to reinvent themselves in whichever way they choose, an ever-changing but relevant reflection of pop music. It seems fitting too that they’ve decided to return now at a point that most people would agree is looking bleak for society, maybe unintentionally casting themselves as the redeeming heroes of pop. The lyrics even make direct reference, warning us that ‘the sky is falling baby’ but urging us to ‘drop that ass ‘fore it crash’. If it’s the end of the world, Gorillaz are going out dancing and taking us all with them. The energy of Albarn and the band more than makes up for Vince Staples’ absence. The frontman and mastermind appears revitalised: he spends the night relishing in the crowd’s adoration (as do his guests). Alternating between the piano, a melodica and a ridiculous keytar, he’s rock and roll incarnate, spraying the crowd with water and jumping around the stage.
Danny Brown’s guest verse on ‘Submission’ vitalises the track, with Albarn and Kelela taking sultry turns at the melody. ‘Carnival’s horrorshow choir is mellowed by Andrew Hamilton’s smooth vocals, and the album stretches into the harsher electro sounds of Gesaffelstein or Peaches with ‘Sex Murder Party’ and ‘She’s My Collar’. Nearing the end of the album, ‘Hallelujah Money’ sees Benjamin Clementine preach to the crowd, eyes wild and voice controlled. His preaching sermon, delivered both to us as the congregation, and Damon the sinner, makes much more sense in context and leads to a stand-out performance, despite the less-than-subtle accompanying imagery from Animal Farm and archive footage of the KKK. The storming closer, already released ‘We Got The Power’ with guests Jehnny Beth and Noel Gallagher, brings the night’s euphoria to dangerous levels. The album works as a set of which most bands dream – the peak of a creative career, although one of many for Albarn.
Though all staff have told me the performance will only last an hour, we’re treated to an encore with ‘Kids With Guns’, ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ all with the original guests – a first for ‘Clint Eastwood’, with Del the Funky Homosapien performing live for the first time. And then! A second encore to fully bring the live return to complete closure. ‘Don’t Get Lost In Heaven’ and ‘Demon Days’ bring the worship to a fitting end, with stained glass window graphics heralding the final end of the set. We’ve all been converted; we all see the light. Gorillaz are back and are ready to redeem us all once again.