The original concept of making Gorillaz a “virtual” rock band fronted by fictional cartoon characters, like a post-apocalyptic version of the Archies, turned out to be an ingenious idea.
Peripatetic British songwriter and bandleader Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett founded the band — which brought its first U.S. tour in seven years to Festival Pier on Thursday night — in 2001, toward the tail end of the fruitful run of Albarn’s ’90s Brit-pop band Blur.
Blur, who broke up 2003 and reunited in 2015, were massive in the U.K., but except for their “woo-hoo”-ing hit “Song 2” never nearly as successful in the United States as their chief British rivals, Oasis.
But the fake frontmen facade of Gorillaz allowed Albarn to experiment behind the scenes — or behind the screens, as the first Gorillaz tour featured musicians hidden by a scrim on which the images of the virtual half-man half-monkeys were projected.
The opposite approach was taken at the Festival Pier, where the band members, with the musically omnivorous Albarn acting as singer, multi-instrumentalist and emcee of a sprawling unit, were visible just like in a regular rock show, with Hewlett’s animated artwork shown on a screen behind them.
And as ever with Gorillaz, Albarn got his jollies by leading the way through bouncy, easily accessible, and playfully experimental pop songs that whimsically combine mostly American music forms, with the help of lots of guests.
Old-school soul elements that were sung on early albums by Bobby Womack and by Mavis Staples on this year’s Humanz were provided by six — count ’em — backup vocalists at the Pier.
Over time, Gorillaz has stayed au courant enough by becoming more and more of a hip-hop band, as Albarn has employed such rappers as Pusha T. and Vince Staples to give the sing-song melodies on his dystopian party albums a dose of much-needed grit.
At the Pier, Staples opened the show after start times were delayed to wait for several seemingly apocalyptic bands of summer thunderstorms to pass over the roofless venue, which was back to its one-stage-only configuration after expanding for the Hoagie Nation and Roots Picnic festivals earlier in the season.
This reviewer missed the Big Fish Theory rapper’s opening set while waiting in one of two long lines, to gain entry, that stretched north and south along Columbus Boulevard. The queues were so daunting that it seemed that the Gorillaz set would need to be long delayed. But, in fact, bodies were briskly moved into the venue once the storm passed. Albarn and crew came onstage only a half-hour late and politely thanked a drying-out crowd for waiting, to the delight of ready-to-celebrate fans mostly much younger than the 49-year-old frontman.
Gorillaz albums are so star-studded that aside from Albarn’s mild-mannered vocals and playfully inventive production aesthetic, the group’s identity can come across as diffuse. On Thursday night, though, it all came together swimmingly, with helpmates that included vocalists Peven Everett and Kilo Kish and house music veteran Jamie Principle, who showcased his stuff on the silly but crowd-pleasing “Sex Murder Party.”
Albarn held center stage on the crackly lonesome ballad “Busted and Blue” and carried the soaring “Andromeda” on his own. Jamaican dance hall artist Popcaan’s pre-recorded vocals and larger than life image were seen on the electronic duet of “Saturnz Barz,” Humanz’ big hit.
The most warmly received guest, though, was Staples. The Long Beach rapper fired up Humanz’s “Ascension” with pointed social commentary (“I’m just playing, baby. This is the land of the free. … Where you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me”).
And when the 21-song set moved on in the encore to the big hits — including “Stylo,” from 2010’s Plastic Beach, complete with a half-animated Bruce Willis video — Staples returned for “Clint Eastwood,” the genre-splicing 2001 spaghetti western-inspired earworm that first won the cartoon band the audience it left thoroughly satisfied Thursday night.