I let my 12-year-old serve as DJ on the way to the Gorillaz show at Ball Arena in Denver last night, and from Boulder on down they were happy to surprise me with selections from D12, Payday and the Aubreys. They were also happy to be headed to their first big arena show (on a school night, no less) instead of yet another Rockies game.
Ball Arena, which some affectionately call “The Nut,” was draped in pink lights as we approached — a seeming nod to the color scheme of the upcoming Gorillaz album, Cracker Island. As the house lights dimmed inside the venue (where the Avalanche will soon hang its third Stanley Cup banner) around 8:55 p.m. and the teenagers around us buzzed with excitement, it was clear I wasn’t at another Olivia Rodrigo or even Phoebe Bridgers concert with my kid. Instead, I recalled David Bowie’s line about “a glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem.”
The ridiculously popular Gorillaz, founded by former Blur singer Damon Albarn in late-’90s England and satisfyingly drawing inspiration from just about every corner of the musical globe, took the stage like a colorful, diverse army as “M1-A1” slowly built into a guitar-rock anthem.
In fact, the night may have featured a lot of booty-shakers as Gorillaz got into a groove, but the first four songs peaked with guitar-rock rage, culminating in “White Light” (from 2005’s Demon Days). Guitarist Jeff Wootton bopped around with distinctly London Calling style, from his clothes to his moves to his playing, and the 52-year-old Albarn took every opportunity to walk through the crowd as he sang, getting even closer with Denver fans than the gregarious Eddie Vedder did last week when Pearl Jam visited Ball Arena.
My kid is a big Gorillaz fan who admonishes me for not knowing when the group drops a new single, and who even dyed their hair blue (in honor of 2-D) before we left for last night’s show, so I hid that I knew what three songs would start the set and roughly the first dozen songs of the set — not just because Albarn and co. have kept essentially the same setlist since this ongoing North American tour started on Sept. 11, but also because it’s barely changed since I first saw Gorillaz, back in 2017 in Amsterdam.
The veritably ossified setlist wasn’t a problem for the crowd, though, because a Gorillaz live show — featuring five backing vocalists; a drummer and percussionist; a bassist and guitarist; a keyboardist; and Albarn on vocals, guitar and melodica — is all about execution, and juxtaposing exquisitely dark-meets-adorable, hip-hop-infused rock with the well-produced videos that accompany each song and feature the adventures of cartoon characters 2-D, Noodles, Murdoc Niccals and Russel Hobbs.
Quixotically, the two-hour Gorillaz performance at Ball Arena was far more scripted and rehearsed than the sprawling, nearly three-hour Pearl Jam show there last week, but featured more lulls in energy, with Albarn sometimes singing as if he’d just woken up from a nap. Maybe it was indeed the result of playing nearly the same setlist the group has set in stone for years — with selections from Cracker Island sprinkled in — and maybe it was the sometimes-awkward Gorillaz habit of collaborating with a very famous musician and then using that very famous musician’s parts in backing tracks at shows.
Kelvin Mercer, aka Posdnuos, of the legendary hip-hop group De La Soul, emerged to rap on the Demon Days hit “Feel Good Inc.” during Gorillaz’s encore last night, and Bootie Brown brought the Denver crowd to a boil on “Dirty Harry.” However, it was Brown’s unexpected performance on “Stylo” — rapping Mos Def’s iconic parts — and Sweetie Irie’s upbeat, creative remaking of “Clint Eastwood” that impressed me the most, similar to Snoop Dogg subverting Del the Funky Homosapien’s mesmerizing “Clint Eastwood” part during Gorillaz’s 2010 set at Glastonbury.
As incredible as all the Gorillaz collaborations on records are — from Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith and Bobby Womack to, coming up on Cracker Island, Beck and Stevie Nicks — I find it more captivating (and it seems Albarn’s stellar live band does too) to see other musicians have fun with those parts in real time than suddenly hear a backing track. The most strikingly awkward lull occurred when Gorillaz’s five-person chorus stood around during “Empire Ants” while Little Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s lead was played on a backing track. Give the ladies in your touring band more of a chance to shine and win the crowd over, as they did last night on “DARE,” Mr. Albarn.
In the end, the show — Gorillaz’s first in Denver since 2017 — was amazing, and my kid was thrilled. During “Tomorrow Comes Today,” they leaned in close and told me, “My school has a melodica. Maybe I’ll learn some songs on it.” They also enjoyed Damon’s passionate connection with the fans just as much as each song’s accompanying video featuring the four Gorillaz characters, commenting at one point “They all, like, die in every one.”
Albarn, for all his sincere rocking out and high-fiving, barely spoke a word besides “Good evening” until about halfway through the set, when he asked the huge crowd, “Is it just me, or are we all very relaxed and enjoying ourselves?”
Posdnuos, however, delivered the best banter of the evening, leading Ball Arena in a mantra that began with, “I will never let anyone tell me what to think” and ended with, “I feel groovy; I feel good.”
As we exited the arena in search of sleep so that the seventh grade isn’t extra challenging this week, I asked my kid to sum up their experience.
“It was loud. My ears were literally bleeding. And it was good.”