Gorillaz @ Apollo Theater, NYC 4/5/06

Entering Harlem’s Apollo Theater, I was welcomed by every staffer I saw. Repeatedly, I was told that it was “world famous.” I didn’t need the reminder. I felt the magic walking up 125th Street, eyes fixed on that legendary red neon sign. With animated images of 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel projected onto the buildings across from the theater, Gorillaz wasted no time in telling us that they owned the place for the week.

After being seated and told no photography was allowed (though Laura snapped the below pic on Monday) the lights came down and we were treated to a classic cut of Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Next, a spotlight shone on the front right balcony. Life size puppets of 2D and Murdoc came out, and had us in fits with a tale of an inquisitive customs agent. Naturally, it ended in Murdoc’s animated reenactment of what was apparently a great blowjob. Now this was funny, yes; but it was made hysterical by the red-faced family sitting in the adjacent balcony. A priceless start to the night.

Lights dimmed once more, and Demon Days Live began.

Curtain rose, a stage full of musicians sat against a backdrop of colored, lighted square screens. Stage right was a group of eight background singers, and to the left a fourteen-piece string orchestra. Lining the back of the stage, beyond the reach of the spotlights, the shaded silhouettes of: plexi-glass encased drummer Cass Browne; bassist Morgan Nicholls; guitarists Simon Tong and Simon Jones (both formerly of The Verve); and of course, Damon Albarn, surreptitiously seated at piano. Rounding out the core group of musicians was DJ D-Zire on turntables, a percussionist, and a synth man. And this is before we’ve seen a single guest or choir. Now you’re seeing where all your ticket money went, kids.

The show was billed as “Demon Days Live,” and that’s exactly what it was: the entire album, in proper order, performed by live musicians, not cartoons. Although we were treated to projections of Jamie Hewlitt’s dazzling animation, the emphasis was decidedly on the players. The music was at times lush, at times jaggedly electronic and danceable, but always human.

After “Intro,” the show took pace with the dub groove of “Last Living Souls,” the string section’s bows moving in concert, background singers rocking in time. Neneh Cherry joined for “Kids With Guns,” a youth choir and Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown danced and swayed through the groove-fest of “Dirty Harry,” and the most brilliant turn came courtesy of De La Soul — kicked off by Pacemaster Mace’s patented laugh — on “Feel Good Inc.” Happy Mondays’/Black Graper Shaun Ryder brought along a lollipop for “DARE,” and a gold jacketed Ike Turner offered an inane piano solo to “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead.” Seriously, the man busted out two chromatic sweeps and a couple of tonal clusters, barely in the right key, and took a big old bow. In a way, I guess he provided one of the most memorable moments of the night, being so comically out of step with the merit of the rest of it. Oh well. I did laugh.

Of the many guests on this genre-defying show, only two appeared via pre-recorded vocal and video: MF Doom and the late, incomparable Cuban jazz-vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame). This meant that, yes, even Easy Riding Dennis Hopper was in the house, providing his oratory to “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head.” Seeing him was a thrill, but his appearance was a mere token: something to applaud for, not something to fawn over.

Where was dear old Damon while all this was going on? Right where we left him, lurking at his piano, visible only in form. And yet, his presence loomed over the entire performance. Albarn’s voice sounds better than ever, and he somehow ties together the disparate style of each song from Demon Days through sheer force of will and character. For encore “Hong Kong,” with the beautiful Zeng Zhin on zither (you read that right), Damon finally stepped into the spotlight. Providing a gorgeous vocal, with an expression full of gratitude, Albarn paused and gazed, in amazement and appreciation for the adoration he was enjoying. The man has followed his restless muse his entire career, but this is the project that will seal his legacy as one of this generation’s true artists.

So, hats off to Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt. Everything about this project from initial concept to stage execution could have been a disaster. Yet all night we were held firmly within Gorillaz universe. The logistics of such a high concept show was presumably a nightmare, but it came off with style. Their full tour next year will be more holograph and animation based. I’ll definitely go again, but I’m glad to have caught the group’s residency at Apollo Theater. I walked to the subway thinking two things: the evening was unforgettable. And we need more rock shows in Harlem.

There are some bootleg videos from Gorillaz’ residency on YouTube, and also some great blog reviews. Too many to list in fact so just throw your URL in the comments if you were there.

UPDATE: Great story. One of “biggest Blur fans in America” gets intimate with Damon at the Apollo afterparty.