Sunday night's Gorillaz performance at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan, the first of a five-night run, began with an unexpected announcement from a deeply chagrined Damon Albarn: They had run into "technical difficulties," the giant projection screen was not working, there would be no animation. He had reason for chagrin, as the Gorillaz, at least live, are a cartoon band, represented to the public as much by the animations of Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett as by their music, and without them to hide behind poor Damon would have to entertain us all alone.
Well, not quite alone. For this track-by-track performance of 2005's "Demon Days," the Gorillaz' second full-length record and a double-platinum seller in the U.S., Albarn had pulled out all the stops: A 23-piece band, including backup singers and a 14-piece string section, and cameos from all of his celebrity collaborators on the record (save Dennis Hopper and rapper MF Doom, represented only by their prerecorded vocals). The strings, although they played great, were a problem: Placed right at the front of the stage, a row of pawns shielding King Damon, they didn't have anything to play on many of the songs, and when they had nothing to play, they danced. You're in trouble when the unavoidable visual spectacle on your stage is 14 classical musicians grooving in their chairs.
The celebrities, however, provided plenty of entertainment with a series of increasingly bizarre appearances. Neneh Cherry looked so delighted to be there it was impossible not to enjoy her; De La Soul thrilled the crowd just by their presence; and Martina Topley Bird (who gave us some of the great vocals of trip-hop on Tricky's "Maxinquaye") was regal and icy in an unexpected kimono outfit. Then there was Ike Turner, who came out dressed in a crazy jumpsuit and performed a 45-second piano solo that was just spectacularly inept. Let me repeat the highlights there: Ike Turner, jumpsuit, inept piano solo. You'd be forgiven for thinking that that was as weird as the evening could possibly get, but then you'd have forgotten about Shaun Ryder. The famously addled Happy Mondays singer, who was clearly on something, took the stage with his leather jacket in one hand, a lollipop in the other and his fly unzipped. He bumbled around the stage as Rosie Wilson sang, eventually traded lollipop for microphone to deliver some incomprehensible babbling, and then crouched down as Wilson was dancing and appeared to be trying to sniff her ass.
Celebrity cameos aside, the music held up well under the increased scrutiny afforded by this uniquely animation-free Gorillaz performance. There were moments of monotony -- times when it became obvious that there was a crucial component missing -- but "Demon Days" is Albarn's best work in a long time. While the band has sometimes been mistaken as a sugarcoated to go down easy, bourgeois-friendly gloss on hip-hop (and it certainly does reflect Albarn's anachronistically decorous view of the genre), the music is actually a singularly successful mash-up, more about enlivening trip-hop than muting hip-hop, and it throws in plenty of electronica, Brit pop and stray world music flourishes. The band, although it was hard to see most of the key musicians, played tightly, managing to perform along with prerecorded tracks through the entire show without losing intensity. And Albarn, a singer I've never been particularly fond of, really sold me on his vocals at this show, singing with real fire and exploring the almost croonerish low end of his voice.