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Review: Virtual band Gorillaz evolve to pop perfection

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
Gorillaz star Damon Albarn sings at the Coachella Festival 2010 in Indio, California on April 18.
Gorillaz star Damon Albarn sings at the Coachella Festival 2010 in Indio, California on April 18.
  • "Virtual band" Gorillaz on tour to promote "Plastic Beach" album
  • Array of guest singers include Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder
  • Band on ferocious form, backed by Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash
  • Gorillaz

London, England (CNN) -- For 10 years Gorillaz' playful cartoon personas have concealed serious musical talent. Despite producing three successful albums, the "virtual band" hasn't often played live and then only behind projections, so no one really knows what to expect as Damon Albarn takes the latest incarnation of his supergroup on the road.

For a European tour to promote the latest "Plastic Beach" album guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, playing together for the first time since The Clash, join the collective along with guests as diverse as soul legend Bobby Womack and Happy Mondays "singer" Shaun Ryder.

Taking the form of a ship's crew, complete with bell, the band kicks off a two-night residency at The Roundhouse in Camden, north London, with no introductions. Unlike his usual chatty persona as Blur frontman, Albarn lets the music do the talking in Gorillaz: he seems deliriously happy whether he is singing, playing keyboards, guitar or melodica, conducting the various musicians, or just waving a white flag around.

A breathtaking array of singers takes to the stage, but the crowd is expected to know who they are. This seems part studied cool, part the fact that Gorillaz is not about personalities, more a collective.

Onstage the graphics of co-founder and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett bring the band's music to life, animating it with often apocalyptic cartoon imagery. And the music is just superb: the sound in the stunningly restored Victorian railway shed is crystal clear. All 20 members of the band, including a string section, two drummers and backing singers can be heard well and Simonon's thundering basslines are not lost in the mix.

Even concerts by the very best bands can start to get slightly monotonous after two hours, but this is no problem with Gorillaz -- the music just continues to amaze the longer it goes on. Most of the songs from the latest album are played along with many old favorites, from the ultra-catchy technopop of "Clint Eastwood" to rap to gospel -- at one stage half a dozen seated north African musicians are wheeled onstage to play an enthusiastically received section.

The crowd comes alive when Womack and rapper Mos Def take to the stage on "Stylo," and Little Dragon's duet with Albarn on "To Binge" is breathtakingly beautiful. The hits "19/2000," and "Dirty Harry" send the crowd wild, and the only shame is that the new album's title track is not performed, nor, evidently, could Lou Reed be persuaded to join the tour for the wonderful "Some Kind of Nature."

Ryder shuffles onstage for "Dare," but the song doesn't quite match the shambolic dance perfection of its recorded version. Blink and you'd miss Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and rappers De La Soul on "Superfast Jellyfish." But it was that kind of night -- a memorable revue of the very highest caliber.