Feel-good show of the year in Phoenix

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Damon Albarn was enjoying the hell out of connecting with his fans in Phoenix on Monday night, grinning like a schoolboy as Gorillaz threw themselves into entertaining a crowd that stretched from preteens in Gorillaz shirts to fans in their 40s and 50s, all coming together as one nation under a groove.

Albarn wandered through the crowd on several occasions, threatening to crowd surf three songs in on “Tranz” and waving his hands in the air (like he just didn’t care) with a look of pure euphoria on “White Light.”

He donned a captain’s hat in the course of a crowd-pleasing version of “19-2000” while leading a smile-inducing singalong of “Get the cool/ Get the cool shoeshine” and took selfies (or possibly videos) with one fan’s phone on “Cracker Island.”

That enthusiasm was beyond contagious.

And it doesn’t hurt that Albarn happens to be blessed with one of the most versatile, distinctive and emotionally captivating voices of his generation, which more than rose to the occasion Monday, especially on songs that played to his more soulful instincts.

In the interest of full disclosure, Albarn has my favorite voice of any living singer. And he put it to brilliant use at Footprint Center.

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Gorillaz’ creative mix of rock and hip-hop

The Gorillaz headline at the Footprint Center on Sept. 26, 2022, in downtown Phoenix.

Perhaps the most consistently creative mix of forward-thinking rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop since the genres started interacting in the ‘80s, Gorillaz have provided Damon Albarn an amazingly elastic vehicle with which to push the boundaries of his artistic vision even further than he’s managed at the helm of Blur.

It’s a diverse commingling of genres that has blurred whatever artificial boundaries exist between them while giving Gorillaz a cultural currency in 2022 that’s left the singer’s fellow Britpop veterans of the ’90s in the NME Where Are They Now? files.

Albarn and his bandmates are merely vessels performing the works of Gorillaz, the world’s most successful virtual band, led by a keyboard-playing vocalist, 2-D, who sounds suspiciously like Albarn; with bassist Murdoc Niccals; a woman known only as Noodle on lead guitar, keyboards and vocals; and Russel Hobbs on drums.

Those Gorillaz drew rapturous applause as animated images from their videos flooded the screen behind the musicians. 

Albarn launched Gorillaz as a side gig in 1998 with Jamie Hewlett, his roommate at the time, whose claim to pre-Gorillaz fame was having co-created and illustrated “Tank Girl,” releasing their seminal, self-titled full-length debut in 2001 with art and videos by Hewlett.

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The ‘Feel Good’ nature of collaboration

The audience illuminates the Footprint Center as they dance and watch the Gorillaz perform on Sept. 26, 2022 in downtown Phoenix.

A large part of what makes Gorillaz work is Albarn’s fondness for collaboration, whether creating a virtual universe with Hewlett or inviting Stevie Nicks and Bad Bunny to join him in the studio for their eighth album, “Cracker Island,” due to drop in February.

Fans who caught their concert one night earlier in Inglewood, California, were treated to walk-ons by Thundercat, Beck, Del the Funky Homosapien and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara in addition to the guests we saw in Phoenix. And that was two nights after being joined by ScHoolboy Q and Tame Impala.

It’s the sort of thing that maybe should’ve taken some small fraction of the shine off this performance.

But it hardly seemed to matter. That’s how entertaining this performance was.

Atlanta hip-hop duo EarthGang, who opened the concert with an energetic show of force on such crowd-pleasing highlights as a speed-rapping “Top Down” and a soulful “Strong Friends,” returned to the stage for a highly addictive shot of “Opium.”

Bootie Brown of the Pharcyde rocked the mic on several songs, revisiting his rap on the Gorillaz classic “Dirty Harry” as the set was building  returning to kick off the encore with “New Gold” and recent single “Stylo.”

EarthGang opens for the Gorillaz at the Footprint Center on Sept. 26, 2022, in downtown Phoenix.

De La Soul led the crowd in a near-euphoric singalong of “Feel Good Inc.” after setting it up with Posdnous leading a motivational-speaker-style call-and-response that ended on a hilarious note that anyone paying attention had to know was coming.

“I need you to say I feel strong,” he testified. “I feel confident. I feel extraordinary. Actually, I think I might … FEEL GOOD.”

It was ridiculous — the best kind of ridiculous. 

“Feel Good Inc.” is a tough act to follow, even when it’s not preceded by such glorious displays of showmanship.

But Gorillaz somehow managed to build on that momentum, bringing the encore to a spirited conclusion with “Clint Eastwood,” their iconic breakthrough single, playing it straight at first until the British reggae toaster Sweetie Irie emerged from the wings to lead them in a dancehall remix.

There were also video appearances by Thundercat (on “Cracker Island”), Little Dragon (on “Empire Ants”), Shaun Ryder (on “Dare”), Slowthai (on “Momentary Bliss”) and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker (on “New Gold”), as well as animated likenesses of Simonon, Jones, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed and De La Soul in the video that accompanied a wonderfully wistful performance of “On Melancholy Hill.”

An image of soul great Bobby Womack, who joined them live in Phoenix last time they were here and died in 2014, appeared on screen during their first live performance of “Cloud of Unknowing” since 2017. 

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Relentless grooves, punkish intensity and soul

The Gorillaz perform at the Footprint Center on Sept. 26, 2022, in downtown Phoenix.

Much of their performance seemed to focus on grooving as relentlessly as possible with the five-piece Humanz Choir underscoring Albarn’s soulful vocals and occasionally stepping out to take the spotlight.

Michelle Ndegwa pulled in one of Monday’s most enthusiastic crowd responses during the gospel-tinged climax of “Kids With Guns.”

At least two highlights rocked with a practically punkish intensity — the electrifying conclusion of their opening song, “M1 A1” and the jaw-dropping back half of “Skinny Ape,” a new song that worked its way up to the fireworks through several soulful verses recalling the bleary-eyed vulnerability of the Blur song “Tender.”

And the changeups were just as effective.

Albarn sat at the piano, reinventing “O Green World” from the post-punk robofunk of the original recording to something surprisingly subdued (that also gave in to those post-punk leanings in the loud parts).

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No Clash? No problem

The last time Albarn came to Phoenix, in 2010, Gorillaz’ touring lineup included the Clash’s Mick Jones on guitar and Paul Simonon (the guy smashing his bass on the cover of “London Calling,” who also played in one of Albarn’s other other bands, the Good, the Bad & the Queen) on bass. 

This lineup didn’t have that sort of history behind it. But that hardly mattered either. 

They were great. And not just great but energetic, tight and also very entertaining.

In addition to Albarn, whose duties ranged from singing and rapping to playing keyboards, guitar and melodica, this version of Gorillaz featured longtime lead guitarist Jeff Wootton, bassist Oluwaseye Adelekan, drummer Femi Koleoso, percussionist Karl Vanden-Bossche and musical director Mike Smith on keys.

That’s in addition to those previously mentioned backup singers: Angel Williams-Silvera, Jesse Appiah, Michelle Ndegwa, Petra Luke and Rebecca Freckleton. 

At one point, Albarn pulled out what he told us was a very special golden horn — the sort of horn he only blows on very special nights. 

Of course, this happened to have been one of those special nights. 

It was the sort of thing you know an artist does in every city. But that also hardly mattered, coming at the tail end of a joyous celebration of Gorillaz’ catalog where you could see how special it was written in the goofy grin that seemed forever etched on Albarn’s face. 

Gorillaz setlist 2022 in Phoenix

M1 A1

Last Living Souls

Tranz

White Light

Tomorrow Comes Today

19-2000

Rhinestone Eyes

Cracker Island

O Green World

On Melancholy Hill

El Mañana

New Genius (Brother)

Empire Ants

Skinny Ape

Kids With Guns

Opium (with EarthGang)

Interlude: Elevator Going Up

Andromeda

Dirty Harry (with Bootie Brown)

DARE

Momentary Bliss

Cloud of Unknowing

Encore:

New Gold (with Bootie Brown)

Stylo (with Bootie Brown)

Feel Good Inc. (with De La Soul)

Clint Eastwood (with Sweetie Irie on Ed Case/Sweetie Irie Re-fix outro)

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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