For a guy that started his career as the cocky, smirking frontman of Blur, Damon Albarn has been equally successful as the voice and one of the brains behind the surrealist virtual band Gorillaz. So it's somewhat surprising to see how gracious Albarn can be when it comes to sharing the spotlight with other musicians — and there were plenty of guests to bask alongside him in the spotlight last night (July 10) at Toronto's Air Canada Centre.
Following a rambunctious opening set from Vince Staples, the Long Beach rapper returned to the stage with Gorillaz, launching into a floor-shaking rendition of "Ascension" from this year's Humanz (after opening interludes "Phoenix on the Hill" and "I Switched My Robot Off"), sending the crowd into an immediate frenzy. From there, Albarn and his massive live band dipped back into Demon Dayz for "Last Living Souls." (The album was revisited later in the night with "El Mañana," then again during a Demon Dayz-heavy encore.)
But the focus of the evening was undeniably the latest LP, and even the guests who were unable to appear in the flesh made cameos via a giant video screen backdrop. A virtual Popcaan featured on "Saturnz Barz," a pixelated Grace Jones belted on "Charger," the sultry Kali Uchis graced the screen during "She's My Collar" and D.R.A.M. gave the illusion of joining the rest of the band in outer space for "Andromeda."
Staples wasn't the only special guest to join Albarn on stage, though. Kilo Kish helped him dust off "19/2000," while Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz cranked up the energy up on the freakishly dark "Sex Murder Party."
Kish and Katz returned for "Out of Body" a little later on in the set, but it was Peven Everett and Little Simz who really stood out as the night's stars. The former wowed with his powerhouse vocals on "Strobelite," while the latter delivered a final blast of gutsy, rapid-fire guest bars across "Garage Palace" and "We Got the Power" to close out the set.
Everett soon returned, though, blowing the arena audience away with an impressive rendition of the late Bobby Womack's parts on "Stylo" to kick off the encore. Albarn then took back the reins for "Kids with Guns," delivering a full-blown laser rock show. By the time he broke out the melodica and moved into the intro of "Clint Eastwood," the instantly recognizable opening was drowned out nearly entirely by the crowd's rapturous response. Things didn't quiet down when Staples and Simz returned to the stage to help out with a couple verses, either.
After more than 90 minutes of electrifying, over-stimulating stage spectacle, Albarn and company eased the audience down and bid them farewell with a gorgeous back-to-back performance of "Don't Get Lost in Heaven" and "Demon Days."
Albarn's signature flourishes are painted all over Gorillaz's music, and band co-founder Jamie Hewlett's artistic touches are literally painted across the video universe created onstage, but it was the elements of surprise — like the remarkable talent of unannounced guests, unexpectedly tender moments (like a lighter-and-phone-lit rendition of "Busted and Blue"), and the fact that Albarn can still sing and leap around the stage with the swagger of his cheeky younger self — that made this a truly exciting live experience.