Gorillaz throws quite the sprawling house party onstage these days, a far cry from the virtual cartoon band created two decades ago by English artist Jamie Hewlett and Britpop musician Damon Albarn. It’s really grown into Albarn’s vehicle, yet he delights in bouncing around the stylistic map and inviting guests to share the ride.
When Gorillaz stormed Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Wednesday as part of its first tour in seven years, Albarn fronted a 12-piece band that included six vocalists even without the guests, and included a hometown surprise for Boston.
Carly Simon emerged from her Martha’s Vineyard retreat to duet with Albarn on textural slow jam “Ticker Tape,” her feature from Gorillaz’s new album Humanz. And while she took a moment to find her pitch in the muddy sound that marred much of the otherwise invigorating two-hour show, Simon sounded more confident as the song built, asking the sold out crowd “Can I dance?” with a sway of her hips.
The tour’s other guests had an even easier time elevating the tent. Beyond the video representation by Grace Jones (in pixilated form) on “Charger” and Savages’ Jehnny Beth on “We Got the Power,” Chicago house pioneer Jamie Principle and rapper Zebra Katz levitated the dance groove of “Sex Murder Party.” R&B singer Pevan Everett put soul and sway into “Strobelite,” which sounded like an early ’80s Minneapolis funk jam (“This is our world, Boston!” Albarn shouted toward the song’s end). And rapper Vince Staples slid headlong into show-kickoff feature “Ascension” chanting “The sky’s falling, baby. Drop that ass before it crash.”
The core band had the firepower to more than hold its own, even if the bass-heavy mix swallowed even sparser breakdowns. It’s not easy to keep a large group in sync — and a technical glitch in the percussion section prompted a do-over of “DARE,” where gospel backup voices rained over a percolating groove.
The comic characters which gave Gorillaz its initial mission occasionally appeared on the screen, most notably in a Road Warrior-like video with Bruce Willis. But this was ringmaster Albarn’s showcase for flesh-and-blood camaraderie. After the guitarist/keyboardist teased long melodica notes into the loping, dub-styled “Clint Eastwood,” where Albarn drawled about “sunshine in a bag,” Staples returned to stalk through a guest verse before heading for the stage wing. But he turned to watch Albarn, who made his way across the stage to engage the young rap star, who simply smiled and put his arm across the bandleader’s shoulder.
This tour might not have had the star power of Gorillaz’s 2010 jaunt with the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and the late Bobby Womack, but this crew was on the same page and having a ball, as was an animated Pavilion audience.