March 5, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Making their Chicago debut Sunday, the cartoon collaborators known as Gorillaz proved to be the most ambitious live act in hip-hop in years--a tuneful but twisted combo that proudly added to the legacies of De La Soul, P.M. Dawn and Digital Underground.
All that, and the sold-out Aragon crowd never once glimpsed the actual performers making the music.
To be sure, there were frustrating elements in the band's hourlong performance. Throughout, the visual focus remained on a giant split video screen divided between the colorful cartoon caricatures of Jamie "Tank Girl" Hewlett on the top, and more subtle projections on the bottom that silhouetted the shadowy outlines of the musicians onstage.
That crew certainly included moonlighting Blur frontman Damon Albarn, guest rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien, DJ Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, the strange-sounds enchantress Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, and a guitarist, bassist and agile drummer whose identities we never did learn.
Together, these musicians navigated the seductive, hypnotic grooves of Gorillaz's phenomenally successful self-titled debut. And you could tell that it was coming to you live, not via Memorex, thanks to the sheer crunch of the unusually good (for the Aragon) sound, as well as the occasional spontaneous flub or musical detour.
On tunes such as "5/4," "Tomorrow Comes Today" and "Clint Eastwood" (one of two songs performed twice, the second time for the encore), the group created dense collages of sound that were nevertheless chock-full of hooks, thanks primarily to Albarn, one of the best songwriters of the alternative-rock generation, and a vocalist of considerable personality and zeal.
The tragedy of the evening was that Albarn is also a galvanizing performer prone to literally climbing the rafters onstage. To be so close yet so far away from actually seeing him and his fellow musicians was like going to a strip bar wearing a blindfold.
It's an enormous credit to the strength of Gorillaz's music that the group still managed to set a new level for live hip-hop, reclaiming a measure of the creativity that has been sadly lacking as American rappers perform over stale DATs and waste half the set in stock routines such as "left side/right side" and "wave your hands in the air."
While most of the band's detractors are claiming that Gorillaz is ripping people off by making them focus on a cartoon during a live performance, I think the point of depriving the audience of extraneous eye candy is the opposite: After a while, I simply closed my eyes and lost myself in the incredible music, thoroughly enjoying one of the best hip-hop shows that I've "seen" (but "not seen") in years.