Gorillaz, O2 Arena, London

Still going ape over the wild bunch
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The Independent Culture

Gone are the days when Gorillaz hid behind their cartoon creations: Damon Albarn and his musical buddies now take centre stage. Well, they fill the entire stage, because there's an awful lot of them – guest vocalists range from a soulful Bobby Womack to old school rappers De La Soul via Mark E Smith and Neneh Cherry while musical accompaniment comes courtesy of The Clash's Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and even The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music.

A diverse troupe, then, but Albarn's musical melting pot cooks up some real treats. Hearing highlights from Gorillaz's three albums, it's striking just how many rock-solid hits they've produced. Old favourites, like the deadpan "Clint Eastwood" or funked-up "19-2000", may be dated by their simple 2-D cartoon videos, but they still sound surprisingly fresh.

New material from latest album, Plastic Beach, comes to life. "Glitter Freeze", featuring Smith's echoed-out vocals and whizzy electronic UFO noises, is enjoyably sinister. The quirky "Superfast Jellyfish", with De La Soul, is a highlight, as is another track they guest on: a blistering "Feel Good Inc", which sends the crowd bananas and sees Albarn and De La Soul's Maseo have a shouting competition up in each other faces.

But most impressive are surely the Syrian Orchestra. The six musicians play a traditional number before joining in on "White Flag". Their delicate, intricate melodies are accompanied by footage of a Sufi swirling, while grime stars Kano and Bashy get shots of a spinning breakdancer, and Albarn waves a huge white flag over the audience (it may not the subtlest of "the value of cultural exchange" messages, but the track is still a superb example of Gorillaz's musical pick'n'mixing).

Some guests can't make it. We have to make do with video footage of jungle-bound Shaun Ryder's head on "Dare", and while Snoop Doggy Dogg sings of a televised revolution on "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach", we also only get a pre-recorded version of his flow.

Albarn dashes about throughout the gig, seemingly about to boil over with energy – he even gives a drum kit a bit of kicking on "Punk" – but remains gracious to guests. Bobby Womack is given deference for a heartfelt performance of "Cloud of Unknowing", prompting the crowd to get their lighters out, while Albarn and a cape-wearing, sparkle-shod Yukimi "Little Dragon" Nagano do a dreamy, dewy-eyed duet that ends with the pair on their knees, embracing. Finally, "Don't Get Lost in Heaven" begins with Beach Boys-esque pop harmonies, moves into falsetto flourishes from Albarn, before winding up as a rousing gospel number for a suitably celestial big finish.

If Albarn is a sort of conductor of this varied selection of artists, then he also proves capable of sweeping us along; the two-hour show flies by, is constantly engaging, bold, and with a lot of just great tunes. And while Jamie Hewlett's visuals, from witty montages to fantasy-band narratives, are still an important element, the real magic is happening on-stage.