After a four year absence in which Damon Albarn transformed Gorillaz into one of the biggest bands in the world, The Good, The Bad & The Queen are back. Whether tonight is a one-off or a more permanent arrangement is yet to be seen, but if the cries from the crowd of ‘do another album!’ and ‘get to the studio!’ are anything to go by then there is definitely enough support and interest.
However, tonight is not about The Good, The Bad & The Queen, it’s not even about the devoted fans, some of whom were queuing outside the venue since 4pm.Tonight is all about celebrating Greenpeace’s 40th birthday and the work they have done helping millions all over the world. You could be forgiven for forgetting that this is a charity gig, though, as the usual hoard of touts swarmed around The Coronet Theatre in South London.
With a promise of ‘special guests’ and a knowledge of Albarn’s superb knack for surprising and varied collaborations I headed down to the theatre nice and early hoping for a decent support act but I was to be rather let down, as a man with a mixing-desk and a bundle of CDs played a set of laid back reggae beats. I’d had more than enough after an hour and a half but this was not the last I was to see of this man this evening.
So, at 9:38 sharp (ahem), Albarn and co entered to an orchestral introduction from the four-strong string section. After a minute or so of soaking up the rapturous applause that echoed around the venue, they launched straight into ‘History Song’, one of the many stand out tracks from the album. Paul Simonon (formerly of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite) patrolled the stage with his signature angular dance moves, wielding his bass guitar as a gun and firing scuzzy blasts of bass at the audience, turning the song into a dirty groove.
Next up was ‘80s Life’, a song strangely befitting of the theatre surroundings. With its punchy piano chords and ‘ooohs’ its sound was akin to that of a musical and brought with it a sense of pantomime as the crowd were invited to join in. ‘Northern Whale’ – a song about the whale that ventured up the Thames – came and went before the first real sing along moment of the night, ‘Kingdom of Doom’. Albarn’s voice sounded as strong as ever and the whole band looks as if they’d never stopped playing together. ‘Herculaneum’, it has to be said, was not as powerful a statement as the version on the record. Looking at it as a song in its own right it was still a very accomplished performance but it lacked the circus-esque melody that usually drives it along.
‘Behind the Sun’, ‘The Bunting Song’ and ‘Nature Springs’ then followed, each a song I was never overly passionate about when the album was released. Live, however, they were a completely different prospect. I watched enthralled as Albarn strode the stage, swapping microphone for piano and piano for guitar, often in the space of one song.
“After a long time playing guitar badly, I’ve realised I’m marginally better if I sit down”, announces Albarn as a whole host of guests join the stage for ‘A Soldier’s Tale’. The band now includes the 4 piece string section, a pianist, a keyboardist and, naturally, a bloke playing a saw. This bizarre choice of instrument turned out to be the most beautiful moment of the gig and was met with cheers and clapping every time it produced its haunting sound. The band seemed genuinely astounded by its beauty too, letting the song continue longer than usual so that it could be played once more.
Another surprising set highlight was ‘Three Changes’, Albarn was clearly enjoying himself by this point, jumping around the stage like he was twenty again. This energy was unrelenting as we entered the final two songs of the set, ‘Green Fields’ and a truly magnificent rendition of their self-titled song. The band were met with a standing ovation and cheers as loud as I’ve ever heard.
The band had rattled through their entire back catalogue in less than fifty minutes leaving the crowd hungry for more. Chants and cheers rang out as I racked my brains as to what else they could play; sure they had a few B-sides but nothing of particular note. As smokes swirled round the stage (partially due to Paul Simonon’s blatant disregard for the smoking ban) The Good, The Bad & The Queen re-emerged and picked up their instruments. As Simonon casually slipped his lit cigarette into the neck of his bass, Albarn addressed the crowd, “This is a song we began writing last time round but never finished”. “Parklife!” was the immediate response from one particularly witty member of the crowd, causing laughter all round. Then something beautiful happened. ‘Parklife’ this was not. It was however ‘Melancholy Hill’, a Gorillaz song off their latest album and one of my favourite songs of all time. I couldn’t control my excitement as the song took on three different guises; firstly a fragile, bewitching rendition led by the acoustic guitar, it then transformed as guitar was exchanged for piano and vocal duties were passed on to none other than the DJ who had been the support act (I later found out this was actually Don Letts). After a short rendition of his song ‘Mr Whippy’ he then left the stage and The Good, The Bad & The Queen grew to one final crescendo before leaving the stage for good, feedback still humming from their monitors. Another standing ovation and it was all over. An incredible end to what had been a thoroughly spectacular evening. Happy Birthday Greenpeace.