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Gorrilaz on Form

Published on November 3rd 2005.

A dry, mild night. A national media blitz. A world premier of the world's most successful animated band. A 2000 capacity Opera House. An introduction by the muppet characters ‘Statler’ and ‘Waldorf’ and a Walt Disney cartoon with Duffy Duck.

It could mean only one thing. The Gorillaz had arrived in Manchester and The Manchester International Festival had secured what promises to be first of many coups.

With a pledge to commission only world-wide premieres, The Manchester International Festival has set out a very ambitious stall - but then what would you expect from a city that is continually punching above its weight and whose appetite for international profile shares more in common with Tim Henman’s longing for a Wimbledon trophy than a ‘regional cities’ efforts to evolve?

With the Festival not due to go live until 2007, The Gorillaz was the first of a promised assortment of spectaculars and what a way to blast off. The cities ‘cool crowd’ packed into the pre-drinks reception but on this occasion it felt different. There was a mix of young and old, creative and professional, and the city's great and good.

There was an air of expectation, of excitement – even if many of the VIP concert-goers had no real knowledge of the band they were about to see. But in a way that didn’t matter. People were there for the experience, they were there to see a world first. They were there to support Manchester.

Given that one of the founding principles of The Gorillaz is anonymity I, along with everyone else, was keen to see how they avoid the usual lead singer format that has become traditional. When the curtain lifted all became clear. The set was very simple and with a backdrop of rectangular illuminated panels all band members were in silhouette, save of course for the chief architect – Damon Albarn who provided an exceptional set of vocals set against bright red.

In keeping with the theme of firsts – it wasn’t enough for the Gorillaz to bring to life each of the 14 tracks on their Demon Days album. That would have been too simple. Instead, the capacity crowd were treated to guest appearance after guest appearance.

First up was Neneh Cherry who looked and sounded great but the general feel from the crowd around me was that the sound levels didn’t do her much justice. This, unfortunately, was a recurring theme with much of the more delicate vocals suffering.

The conveyor belt of musical talent seemed endless with an appearance from De La Soul who looked like they were in their element – real showmen and performers with the type of smile any toothpaste brand would be proud to have on their ads. Ike Turner played the piano and the legendary Shaun Ryder - of Happy Monday’s fame – did his thing, including a dancing display that anyone with a slipped disc would be proud of.

The real genius though came not though the musical legends who graced the stage but came via the creative direction of Alex Poots and his team and their clever involvement of local people.

The Royal Northern College of Music provided six musicians on strings. Two Wythenshaw schools provided a choir and Manchester Community Choir provided gospel vocals. Manchester learned during the Commonwealth Games that the key to a successful international event is working with local people and The International Festival already seems to be marrying the best local talent with the best international talent.

So what was the verdict after the curtain went down? Well one thing's for sure - the ‘cool brigade’ would be waking up to sore necks thanks to some energetic chair dancing.

The sound system could have done with some tweaking and the animations which had top billing didn't quite cut the mustard. But if you were there for the love of the music then you were in the right place. The show felt well rehearsed and polished but without the usual heroics of individual showmen. The Gorrillaz was all about the music.

My one observation however is more of a question to the Gorillaz, as I can’t help but wonder does a band who’ve become a three million selling album success by never appearing live have any regrets in taking their format onto stage?

Fraser James


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