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And for their next act ...

The guys behind Gorillaz aren't calling it extinct yet, but they won't be trapped by the project's surprising success either.

April 23, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

New York — PAY no attention to the man behind the curtain.

That's the underlying premise of Gorillaz, the highly successful "virtual band" made up of four semi-simian cartoon characters whose strings are pulled from behind the scenes by musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett.

But now the man -- Albarn himself -- was in front of the curtain, literally, pacing the stage at the Apollo Theater here and telling the audience that a technical glitch, of all things, meant there would be no visuals that night.

The five-night engagement this month was a rare live manifestation of Gorillaz, and Albarn's apologetic welcome was an even rarer break from the core premise. It was easy to think of the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when the illusionist must give up his fiction.

As it turned out, no harm was done. Even without the vivid Hewlett animation that would enhance the music during the rest of the run, the opening show was a powerful trip through the dark but enticing music of the latest Gorillaz album, "Demon Days." And Albarn slipped easily into the background, just another anonymous silhouette at the back of the stage.

The whole idea of Gorillaz seemed like an odd little novelty when the two Englishmen came up with it six years ago, but after selling more than 4 million albums, drawing critical acclaim and getting a record-of-the-year Grammy nomination for the hit song "Feel Good Inc.," the Gorillaz have done more than exceed expectations. They've invented a whole new way of rock presentation.

You can see the appeal for Albarn. The singer and songwriter had led the rock band Blur to the pinnacle of British rock in the 1990s, but the group had bogged down in personal tensions and he began looking for an outlet for his diverse musical interests. He enjoyed brainstorming with his friend Hewlett, who had found his own fame in the comics world as the creator of "Tank Girl."

Voila! If you can reinvent yourself in the form of, say, four feisty pen-and-ink characters, give them a distinctive funk-rock-rap musical vocabulary, bring them to life in elaborate videos and websites, and even figure a way to get them on the concert stage, well, it's a whole new world.

And at a time when reality television and celebrity media are giving us more than we want to know about both the famous and the obscure, there's something satisfying about losing yourself in a reality of your own making.

"It certainly is a model for the right to experiment, and it's evidence that if you experiment you can be just as successful," Albarn said the day after opening night here. "But you can't do what we do if anyone wants the limelight, if anyone wants to be a celebrity. It doesn't work like that. It has to have that neutrality to be able to move....

"Bands inevitably sort of nurture a star, don't they? They can't help it, most of them. There's always one or two people, to the detriment of everyone else. That's a shame, but that's the way it goes. So I suppose in that sense that's a great model that we have, that you don't have to have a star."

Albarn, balancing a container holding a chicken dinner on his lap, looked around the empty Apollo Theater from an orchestra seat a few hours before the week's second show.

"Without being overly romantic about it, it's sort of in the walls, isn't it?" he said, explaining the choice of the famed black music showcase in Harlem for this Gorillaz show.

Billed as "Demon Days Live," it featured Albarn joined by a rock band, string section, gospel choirs and some of the album's odd assortment of guest artists, who were brought in as much for vibe as strict musical distinction -- star-crossed figures with colorful pasts such as Ike Turner, actor Dennis Hopper and the Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder.

It wasn't a "real" Gorillaz concert, the kind they toured with in the U.S. in 2002 with the musicians hidden and the cartoon characters projected on a screen. But it was all there would be for now and it sold out quickly -- just like a similar staging last fall in Manchester, England, that was recently released on DVD.

As it turns out, that might be all there is for Gorillaz. Official word had been circulated about an ambitious 2007 tour with 3-D projection and developing story lines, but now that's off.

"We've knocked that on the head. We don't feel like it's going to work," said Albarn. He also insisted that "Demon Days" is the final Gorillaz album.

This band that's not a band might be a boon for EMI stockholders and an involving diversion for fans, but for Albarn and Hewlett it's just a passing -- if prominent -- stopover.

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