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Gorillaz at play in the midst of Apollo legends

The English band draws from hip-hop and gospel to open its U.S. concert.

April 04, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin and other great figures from black music's past gazed out of vintage photographs across the lobby of the Apollo Theater on Sunday at the placards posted on the opposite wall. There, their eyes met cartoon photos and graphic images illustrating the songs of the Gorillaz, the English band (or non-band) that was an unlikely invader at the famed bastion of jazz, blues and soul music.

On the surface, it looked like a great cultural divide, but as things turned out, the Harlem theater couldn't have been a more appropriate venue for this highly anticipated engagement, the only currently scheduled U.S. manifestation of the million-selling, Grammy-nominated Gorillaz. Even more than their album "Demon Days," Sunday's concert drew much of its power from its connection with black American music, particularly hip-hop and gospel.

Two choirs joined the crowd on the stage at various points in the show, lifting the energy and infusing the music with a spiritual passion. On the earthier side, rappers Bootie Brown, De La Soul and Roots Manuva gave voice to the songs' darker elements. And the evening offered one direct link with the Apollo's past -- Ike Turner, who played the room during the heyday of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, returned Sunday to fire off his flamboyant piano solo from "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead."

These musical fusions and symbolic gestures seem close to the heart of Damon Albarn, who became one of British rock's biggest stars in the '90s with the band Blur and now presides over the complex Gorillaz enterprise. The group's public face is four cartoon characters created by artist Jamie Hewlett, and its music is Albarn's mix of bittersweet-flavored Britpop with an artfully gritty pastiche of funk, hip-hop, psychedelia and exotica.

It's become a critical and commercial success, but Albarn has kept these Gorillaz in the mist, so to speak. "Demon Days" came out last summer, but there won't be a full-production concert tour featuring the animated characters until 2007. In the interim comes this "Demon Days Live" presentation, which was staged for five nights last fall in Manchester and has now come to New York for a similar run. (A DVD of the English concerts will be released at some point, but no date has been set).

Gorillaz is a tech-savvy operation, so it was a little ironic that opening night began with Albarn walking onto the stage an hour past the scheduled 8:30 p.m. starting time and telling the audience that a technical problem had befallen their central projection screen. That meant an absence of the visual component that's integral to the Gorillaz, but it also served to demonstrate that the music can stand on its own.

Reinforcing the notion that the Gorillaz are four cartoon figures (two of them -- Murdoc and 2D -- in puppet incarnation, opened and closed the night with some raucous banter up in an opera box), Albarn melted into the background for the performance, remaining silhouetted against a colored screen at the rear of the stage as he sang and played piano. There was a guitar-bass-drums rock band and a DJ around him, a large string section (from Juilliard) filled the right side of the stage and a line of backup singers held the left.

The set list stuck tightly to the concept -- the songs from "Demon Days," played in order and without very much in the way of extended solos or other added elements. That made for a short night -- the concert clocked in at about an hour, including an encore, leaving a slight feeling of incompletion.

Some kind of grand finale featuring all the guest artists (who were reprising their roles on the album) might have been nice, because you don't see guest lists like this very often -- and that's not counting Dennis Hopper, who's scheduled to appear the last two nights to do his reading from the album of "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head."

In addition to De La Soul, Manuva and Turner, the lineup included two English artists who had brief flirtations with American audiences and then faded from sight. Neneh Cherry, whose bold blend of soul and rock made her look like a sure bet in 1989, brought a fiery vocal to "Kids With Guns," and Shaun Ryder, from the star-crossed Manchester band Happy Mondays, sauntered out carrying a leather jacket and working on a lollipop, striking a bratty stance for his vocal on "Dare."

All this pop-culture alchemy, along with the Gorillaz's elaborate back story and deep investment in technology (a hookup with a cellphone company enables those at the Apollo to download a Gorillaz game and other goodies), creates a sense of swirling social currents that can be exhilarating and menacing.

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