Gorillaz: 'Demon Days' Live, Opera House, Manchester

Triumph of the great apes
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The Independent Culture

A "trailblazer'' event to herald the announcement of the inaugural Manchester International Festival, this live presentation of Gorillaz' multimillion-selling Demon Days album was the kind of labour-intensive exercise that would test the mettle of a seasoned logistician, let alone an Essex pop star. As well as the musicians permanently on stage - drummer, percussionist, bassist, two guitarists, keyboardist, five backing singers and a sizable string section - there are a series of guest vocalists to be shuttled on and off, and no fewer than two complete choirs of around two dozen voices apiece. And that's not even considering the sophisticated visual element that Albarn's co-Gorilla, the cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, has devised for the show. Small wonder there will be only five performances: just moving about backstage must have been a problem.

The show opens in a light-hearted, roundabout fashion, with two of the Gorillaz appearing in a balcony overlooking the stage, like the Muppets Statler and Waldorf, anticipating the performance in a jokey manner that incorporates plenty of TV catchphrases, from Victor Meldrew to Little Britain. Then we get a rarely seen and excellent Daffy Duck cartoon projected on to the safety curtain, as if it were Saturday morning at the pictures.

Finally, the curtain rises to reveal the huge retinue spread across the stage, visible only as silhouettes against a series of light-boxes whose colour changes depending on the song - red, black and white for "Kids with Guns'', gorgeous blue and white for "El Manana'', flashing white for "White Light''. Above the panels, a video screen posts a series of fast-cut images illustrating the songs' themes - which, since the album is an extended commentary on global woes, involves plenty of apocalyptic footage. Ironically, the most gripping is the least gloomy, Hewlett's simple ink drawing of a girl on a bicycle that gradually reveals itself through the course of "El Manana''.

Albarn is immediately recognisable as the pianist in profile just right of centre stage, though he remains modestly silhouetted while a succession of guests do their turns front and centre. A stick-thin Neneh Cherry does a curious bow-legs dance in "Kids with Guns'', but greater acclaim is bestowed on the children's choir that does a loose formation dance during "Dirty Harry'', the show's most satisfying blend of hip-hop, techno, rock and strings. Trugoy and Posdnuos from De La Soul lift spirits further when they bounce on for "Feel Good Inc'', before Ike Turner continues his rehabilitation on "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead'', donning a sparkly jacket to tinkle the ivories in one of the evening's stand-out performances.

Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird are less ebullient on "All Alone'', but the local home boy Shaun Ryder gets a hero's welcome when he slopes on to wiggle his behind at the audience during "DARE''.

The album's dazzling three-song climax is brilliantly effected here, with the Manchester Community Choir helping bring proceedings to a suitably lifting conclusion on "Demon Days'' itself. For the first time, Albarn stands to face the audience to deliver his falsetto finale, the song's moving impact undercut by the irreverent backdrop of stained-glass Gorillaz on which the curtain falls. As if that weren't more than enough for one night, Albarn's War Child benefit song "Hong Kong'', featuring the Chinese zither of Zeng Zhen, all but steals the evening's thunder as an encore, leaving one to ponder the irony of how such a jokey solo project diversion should come to assume such massive importance as pop's most singular multi-media enterprise.

To Saturday (www.gorillaz.com).

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