Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Concert Memories: Gorillaz at Agganis Arena, Boston, MA October 6, 2010

Before the show...

***Please note that all photos on this post were taken by me and I'd appreciate it if you didn't use them without my permission. Thanks! ***

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the reasons I started writing about the numerous concerts I've seen over the years is my belief that every one of them has an interesting story behind it. Whether it's something minor or something major, no matter the magnitude, something memorable happened around each show I've been to. This next one is no exception! In 2010, I was fortunate enough to see Gorillaz, the "side project' from Blur frontman Damon Albarn that somehow ended up being a commercial and critical smash here in the USA in a way his main band, Blur, have never been. Gorillaz have recorded three albums, but they never played many live shows. To support their self-titled debut album in 2001, they played a handful of shows behind a screen onto which the animations were projected. To support 2005's Demon Days album, they played a few more shows silhouetted entirely behind a screen. However, when it came time to support 2010's Plastic Beach, Damon finally put together a big band and took it out on a proper worldwide tour. Being a huge Blur and Damon fan, I knew I had to try and see a show on the tour but didn't know if I'd actually be able to make one. Then, a series of events played out that went from fortuitous to bizarre to a bummer before it all worked out in the end. Before I get to all of that, first I'd like to reproduce the review of the concert I wrote for the now-defunct Audio Perv website. 

“'Blur are better.'

Anyone who knows me well would expect me to conclude this review with those three words…I’ve been a massive fan of Damon Albarn’s “other band” for 15 years and always considered Gorillaz to be his solo side project and nothing more. But after seeing Gorillaz rock out the Agganis Arena in Boston last night touring in support of their third album Plastic Beach, I’ll have to reevaluate that sentiment later on in this review. For those not in the know, Albarn, the genius behind Gorillaz, is a multi-talented songwriter, vocalist, keyboard/guitar player who originally rose to fame in the 1990s as the frontman for legendary British rock band Blur…since 2000, he’s been the musical soul behind the three mega-selling Gorillaz albums, partnering with Jamie Hewlett, who is the brains behind the visual presentation. 


My ticket stub from the show; there's a story behind it...


The concert began with openers N.E.R.D., who this reviewer was not familiar with at all, although the crowd of mostly college kids seemed to know every word. Songs I did pick out were Party People, Rock Star, and Lapdance. They also announced they were playing some new songs from their upcoming album, to be released “sometime in November.” Their mix of hip-hop and R&B singing was fairly interesting although as someone who isn’t a fan of those genres, I spent most of the set waiting for it to be over. However, they performed well…I did enjoy their vocal harmonies, as well as the incredible drumming by their two drummers.
 
Finally, around 9pm, Gorillaz took the stage in front of a massive video screen and large multicolored-lit letters spelling out their name. Decked out in pirate and sailor gear (hats, striped shirts, naval jackets, eyepatches) they fit right in with the theme of the upcoming show. Albarn himself, not needing any costume due to his incredible charisma and stage presence, dressed simply in a red and black striped top, black jeans, and sneakers. The set began with an extended instrumental intro before a video of Snoop Dogg synced to the rest of the band welcomed everyone to the “World of the Plastic Beach.” For the next 100 minutes, Gorillaz weaved their way through about as perfect a set list as you could ask for, playing songs from all three of their albums, including the “hits” like Clint Eastwood, DARE, Feel Good, Inc., Stylo, and 19-2000. Highlights for me included Last Living Souls, O Green World, Kids with Guns (which contained an awesome extended jam at the end), and long and excellent versions of Empire Ants and Glitter Freeze. The ending encores of Don’t Get Lost in Heaven, which segued into Demon Days, was suitably epic and sent the crowd home on a blissful high.
 


The Gorillaz band itself was excellent, highlighted by Damon Albarn’s incredible vocals and keyboards. Paul Simonon (bass) and Mick Jones (guitar), both of The Clash, were fantastic, and they were augmented by another keyboard player, two phenomenal drummers, backing singers, a string septet, and for some songs, a Middle Eastern quintet. While various animations and videos played behind them, this band wove intricate soundscapes and rocked out as tight and as hard as any band that’s out there. Joining them at various points in the set were Bobby Womack (Stylo, Cloud of Unknowing), Snoop Dogg (via video on Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach), De La Soul (Superfast Jellyfish and Feel Good, Inc.), Little Dragon (Empire Ants, To Binge), Bashy and Kano (White Flag, Clint Eastwood), and Shaun Ryder (via video on DARE). After Phases I and II, during which the live performances of the first two albums (Gorillaz and Demon Days) involved the band playing behind screens or in shadows while the animations took center stage, the live show is now centered on the band itself, out there for all to see.
 


And what can be said about Albarn himself? One of the most talented musicians of the last 20 years, he was as dynamic a frontman last night as he was in his Blur days, jumping and dancing around the stage while delivering vocals that ranged from soft and heartfelt to strident and powerful, and everything in between. Although he did mention Boston was one of the first places he ever came to in the USA (back in 1991), he wasn’t very talkative, certainly not as much as he is when playing with Blur (and as someone who has seen Blur and listened to over 200 of their live recordings, it was very obvious to me). The man was all business on tonight, although you could tell he was genuinely happy to be there doing what he was doing onstage.
 




One thing I noticed was that the crowd for the Gorillaz was much more age diverse than that for N.E.R.D., with 50 and 60 year olds dancing alongside teenagers and college kids (and even some young children). Mostly, however, it was a mix of every age in between. The crowd as a whole was a bit static and lame, especially close to the stage, which was rather surprising. No such problems a bit further away, where I was sitting…everyone was dancing and singing along with enthusiasm.
 
On a cold and rainy night that was anything but enjoyable outside, Gorillaz delivered one of the best concerts in recent memory for this reviewer. To return to the statement that opened this review, are Blur better? Yes and no. Blur will always be Albarn’s “main” band (at least to me), the one he’s best known for and the one that will always be my favorite. But in my mind, Gorillaz is no longer just his side project. They’re a legitimate band in their own right who are just as good and just as exciting. Gorillaz is as good as Blur.
 
Go see Gorillaz live if you can…you won’t be sorry" 

As you can see, I thought the show was great even though I was a bit skeptical going into it. I was definitely a fan of Gorillaz' music (I still am) but I'd never put them on quite the same level as Blur until seeing them live. How I ended up getting to the show is where the real story lies...




As soon as I heard about this tour, I knew I needed to do what I could to see a show, especially as there would be a stop in Boston. Still, I wasn't sure if I wanted to splurge on a ticket so I kept going back and forth on whether to pull the trigger or not. As I kept mulling it over in my head one day on my commute home from work in Boston, I got an message on my iPhone from a friend who forwarded me a tweet he'd seen earlier in the day.  It was from a now-defunct music news and review site called The Audio Perv that was looking for someone to review the Gorillaz show in Boston coming up in a couple of weeks. Needless to say, I wanted in on this opportunity, so I promptly pulled my car over (I was nearly home anyway) and fired a tweet back to the site's account gallantly offering my services.  A little while later I heard back from the fellow and we arranged a phone call for later in the evening. On the phone, he gave me the pitch: he had a press pass and ticket for the show and would I be interested? I'd be right at the front of the stage in the photographers pit and might even get to go backstage after the show to speak with the band and take photos. I was floored at the opportunity, especially as it would be 100% free. Just to make sure there was no catch, I asked what I had to do in order to be so privileged, to which he told me I simply had to go to concert, take a bunch of photos, and write a review for his site. That seemed more than fair enough for me so I readily agreed. Not only was I now going to see the Gorillaz concert, but I would have a prime seat right at the foot of the stage! How could anything be better?

Let's fast forward to the day of the concert and I'll answer that question! October 6th was a Wednesday that year and I spent the day at work, as usual. I was working in a south Boston suburb so I didn't have to leave work too early to get into the city to make the show. The day had been overcast and dreary since morning and by the time I drove into downtown Boston it was murky, cold, and dark...not an atypical October day in New England. I'd originally planned on parking a bit further out from the arena (which is on the Boston University campus) and taking the subway to Agganis, but on a lark I decided to drive all the way in and park at the arena. Deciding to forgo dinner, I went to the ticket window and proudly mentioned that I was there to pick up my press pass and ticket, to which they told me I needed to go to the side entrance where all of the press folks picked their passes up. No problem, I thought, and walked around the side of the building to the press entrance. There was someone there waiting so I again confidently walked up and said that I was there to get my press pass. She asked the name of who I was representing, I told her, and she said she'd be right back with it. I was standing there absolutely thrilled, still in disbelief that I would soon be right in front of the stage seeing Gorillaz and one of my musical idols in Damon Albarn, when she came back and said that she was sorry but there was no press pass with my name on it. I couldn't believe it...had I been duped? At the same time as this exchange was going on, another fellow showed up and handed his card to her. She said she'd go back and check again for me while she got the new fellow's pass. As she walked away I asked him where he was from and he showed me his credentials...Rolling Stone magazine. We made some small talk and waited for her to come back, and when she did it turned out she had bad news for both of us! There were no press passes for us and we were told that we'd have to go in through the main entrance. Out came the cell phone as I made a call to the fellow from the website who had set the entire thing up for me. He was pretty miffed at the situation and told me he'd call the venue and sort things out. I waited several anxious minutes before he called back, only to tell me that for whatever reason, the band and their management had revoked ALL press passes and there was no way I'd be getting into the show with one. To say I was gutted would be a complete understatement as a whole range of thoughts went through my head. Did I just have bad luck? Had I been played for a fool? Was it true that the band revoked all press passes or just for the site I was supposed to be representing? I never did find out, although the Rolling Stone guy walked away pretty pissed off, too, so I don't think I was played for a sucker. The best the fellow who ran the website could tell me is that if I did review the show, he'd definitely publish it on his site. I slowly trudged around the building back to the ticket window asking myself if I should buy a ticket and go in anyway or if I should just go home? It didn't take me long to come to my senses and realize that I was already here and my car was already parked close by...why the hell wouldn't I take advantage of the situation and catch the show anyway? Sheepishly, I went back up to the ticket window and bought myself the best seat I could. Sadly this meant that instead of being in the photographers pit at the foot of the stage, I'd be up a ways back from the stage. Luckily since it's a college arena, it wasn't too big and so I still had a great view of the show. Once the music kicked in, I forgot about the circumstances that led me to that moment and spent the rest of the evening up on my feet dancing and thoroughly enjoying the music. I even recorded the entire show on my iPhone...the quality was horrid, especially in the poor acoustics of the echoey arena, but it made for a nice souvenir. I also took a bunch of photographs, many of which you see here in this post.

 The entire show is on YouTube...check it out!

As for the show itself, I already reviewed it five years ago and you've read it above, so I'm not going to go through it again. I will say that after the show I was ecstatic at what I had just seen and heard. It was now full-blown raining outside, one of those cold and wet October Boston nights that can chill you to the bone. Luckily I only had a short walk to my car. I hit a late-night drive-through for some food as soon as I got out of the city (I was STARVING, having not eaten anything since lunchtime that day) and drove back home. I think it was around 1:30am when I arrived home and by then I was too wired awake to go to sleep right away. Worst of all, I had to be up by 5am in order to drive back into the city for work the next day, but I didn't care. I was still so buzzed from the concert that I never regretted being absolutely, wearily exhausted at work the next day. It still stands as one of the best concerts I've ever seen, even if the circumstances around why I went and how I finally got in didn't seem so amusing at the time. Luckily, everything worked out and in hindsight, it's given me another great story (and memory!) which I've now shared with you...I hope you enjoyed it!

4 comments:

  1. Pretty bizarre and what an initial letdown. I would have thought since you wrote a book about Blur that they might have given you free seats for any of their concerts. I have two of their albums, but didn't know of the Blur connection. I don't know that they are entirely in my wheelhouse, as I don't care a lot about the hip hop aspects of the band, but I'm open enough to their overall sound, which has a bit of Bad in it, and the combination effect of their layered sound.

    So did you grow up in and around the Boston area? How do you like that? I've always heard it's expensive living there and pretty hard to get around in. I used to be a fan of the Car Talk guys and listened to them all the time.

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    1. Haha, well I have had some contact with the band and they know of my two books on them (they also have copies of them as I sent them through a friend of mine who knows them), but I've never received any tickets for any of their shows, sadly! Gorillaz was initially a side-project by Damon in 2001 but it turned into a hugely successful solo project and far surpasses anything Blur has done here in the US in terms of sales and exposure. Blur are massive everywhere BUT here, where they are a cult band with a rabid and dedicated fanbase (including yours truly, obviously!).

      Indeed, I am from the area. Not the city proper, but the metropolitan area. My family on both sides is from the New Hampshire seacoast, they've been there for 100 years. I grew up in central NH but relocated to the seacoast for college and beyond...after I got my PhD I commuted into Boston for work for almost 7 years (southern NH from Nashua/Manchester to Dover/Portsmouth is considered the outer edge of the Boston metro area). It *is* incredibly expensive to live there...one of the reasons (along with the great job offer I got) that we moved to central PA last year. Boston is actually a LOT easier to get around in nowadays than it ever used to be. I never had issues driving around there, but then again I'm a native :). I could see how someone not used to it would think it's crazy! Ever been?

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  2. No, never been up to the east coast, but I'd like to. I bet there's plenty to see and it's pretty cool.

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    1. There definitely is! (of course I'm biased...)

      I'm the same way with the midwest...I've lived my whole life in the northeast, traveled up and down the east coast and been out to the west coast loads of times, but only ever flown over the midwest or had layovers in airports on the way to either coast. I do want to go to Chicago and Texas some day, though.

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