Gorillaz celebrate the return of live music with an old-fashioned knees-up at the O2 Arena

Damon Albarn suits being a karaoke dad

Gorillaz are pioneers of defying binaries – and the O2 Arena couldn’t have picked a more appropriate act to headline its first show back in over 18 months.

From the outset Damon Albarn and co play with such dynamic force that it’s overwhelming when paired with a sea of thousands of fans and the backdrop of Jamie Hewlett’s trippy visuals. ‘Tranz’ and ‘Rhinestone Eyes’, which on record groove delicately, are transformed into heavy and powerful beasts, with an almost punkish quality thanks to the conviction and grit they are played with (honourable mentions to bassist Seye Adelekan and guitarist Jeff Wooton).

Albarn understatedly and endearingly shuffles about the stage like a dad at karaoke (in a good way), giving the spotlight to superstar additions who don’t feel so much like guests than actual members of the band: from ’80s indie icons Robert Smith and Peter Hook, to international exports Popcaan and the mesmerising Fatoumata Diawara, as well as homegrown talent Slaves, Jelani Blackman and Little Simz. A two-track homage to Notting Hill Carnival with Mangrove Steelband further instils a real sense of togetherness.

Before closing off with ‘Don’t Get Lost In Heaven’ and ‘Demon Dayz’, the fever dream-esque ‘DARE’ sees Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder and Rowetta sway about for something that feels like a knees-up at your local pub rather than a spectacle befitting one of the biggest arenas in the country. Dignity is restored when Little Simz returns to the stage for a mind-bending freestyle over the goosebump-inducing ‘Clint Eastwood’, which escalates into the Ed Case/Sweetie Irie remix, as Irie himself acts as a conductor for the motley crew on stage and guests are brought back once more for a chaotic improvised dance and jam.

With collaborations on every track, Gorillaz’s latest album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez provided an escapist paradise when released in the midst of lockdown last summer. Live, it is an amplified reminder of the beauty in connection, and the political nature of tracks from Demon Days and Plastic Beach feel like they have a renewed relevance in our increasingly dystopian society. London’s first arena gig post-pandemic is a true celebration of music, culture and unity led by Albarn and his band of nonconformists; an electric embrace after so long.

Photography by Luke Dyson