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Gorillaz debut new song and mesmerize San Francisco crowd

At one point during the triumphant San Francisco leg of the Gorillaz world tour on Wednesday night, Britpop icon and multifaceted maestro Damon Albarn pulled out a 6-foot-long golden horn.

“This thing is special,” he said. “Everyone close your eyes. I only blow it on special nights when I know the crowd are ready to receive it.”

After an almighty parp that rang to the rafters of Chase Center, the virtual and real band kicked into one of its most irresistible grooves, “Stylo,” and 15,000 people danced.

Damon Albarn is many things. ’90s teen pinup, indie hero, opera composer, supergroup leader, celebrity beef maker and the founder of a world-dominating virtual band. But to me, he’ll always be my introduction to alternative music when I bought my first tape cassette with my own money on a rainy English high street at the age of 12. That album, “Parklife,” would create an entire genre and start Blur’s tenure as one of the biggest, most loved bands in England with a string of six No. 1 albums on the U.K. charts.

Outside of hockey game favorite “Song 2,” Blur never quite pushed its way into the mainstream in the U.S. like its more commercial British peer Coldplay. But Albarn’s creation of the experimental virtual band Gorillaz in 2001 with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett broke every mold.

The ever-evolving group of collaborators and guests centered around Albarn has ranged from Grace Jones to Elton John to Doja Cat to former members of The Clash to Tame Impala to De La Soul over the years.

On Wednesday night, the giant screen behind the stage revealed the virtual universe Hewlett created, where cartoon members 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Hobbs did their digital thing. In front of that backdrop, the actual band with backing vocal quintet The Humanz Choir grooved as if their lives depended on it.

Albarn, in a white denim jacket, black T-shirt and gold chain, swaggered around with a giddy grin, and it only took three songs before he lost the jacket and launched himself into the crowd, providing some logistical difficulties for his security and sound men.

The frontman has somehow not lost the punk energy that has seen him scaling PA speakers and light rigs and launching his body around the stage like a rag doll since 1991.

Outside of the golden horn, his high jinks at Chase Center included a sprint into the crowd losing the spotlight and camera, grabbing a gleeful fan’s phone and screaming into the livestream and donning a glimmering dayglow hat offered by a fan (something that has become a tradition on the tour).

“I always wanted to be Elton John,” Albarn said as he sat at the piano to play a stripped-down version of  “O Green World” wearing the hat and glittering glasses.

Damon Albarn of Gorillaz performs at Chase Center on Wednesday in San Francisco.

Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The first half of the set neglected the hip-hop element that was such a big part of the band’s breakout success. The members, all dressed in hot pink matching Hewlett’s artistry for the upcoming album “Cracker Island” (set to feature Stevie Nicks and Bad Bunny, among others), shifted from punk (“White Light”) to electronica (“Rhinestone Eyes”) to one of the prettiest songs Albarn has ever written, “On Melancholy Hill.”

The funk created by the rhythm section on early single “19-2000” was so sexy it propelled Albarn into a gyration to compete with Flea’s viral pelvic writhing happening a few blocks away, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers entertained a very different crowd of tech workers for Dreamforce at Oracle Park.

The band then played the world premiere of a new song influenced, for better or worse, by the Bay Area.

“This is a new song. It’s inspired in part by one of those wonderful things that come out of Silicon Valley,” Albarn explained with a little snark. “The Amazon robot that walks down the road and delivers things. It’s something we haven’t got on my little island far away. Yet. I saw one, and it inspired me.”

It’s rare that a new song receives the kind of love the debut of “Skinny Ape” got at Chase Center. From a delicate dueling intro between guitarist Jeff Wootton and bassist Seye Adelekan to a rousing refrain, “Don’t feel sad for me …”

By the end, the crowd was somehow singing along in unison, “I’m a skinny little ape ape ape ape,” to Albarn’s clear delight, as he maybe realized right there that he had written another hit. 

Despite Albarn’s occasional public feuds with other musicians, from the epic and largely contrived rivalry with Oasis in the ’90s to being the recent target of Swiftie ire, the man’s disarming smile and aging charm elicit a huge amount of goodwill from anyone in his presence. The crowd ranged from neon-clad teens to geriatric millennial Blur fans like myself to some Dreamforce strays, and all were in the palm of his hands as he climbed atop the barriers and lifted his arms in the air in both glory and thanks.

The set list saved the hip-hop and hits for the second half, as it moved into a joyous cavalcade of the guest vocalists, with Albarn conducting the entire party underneath the perfectly synced animated band.

De La Soul’s Pos led the crowd in a spoken word, cultlike chant of “I will never let anyone tell me what to think, I will never let anyone tell me what to say, I will never let anyone tell me what to do … unless it’s Damon Albarn. I feel strong, I feel confident and I … feel good,” launching the crowd and band into a frenzy as Gorillaz played their biggest hit, “Feel Good Inc.”

Michelle Ndegwa took the explosive lead vocals on “Kids With Guns,” Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker appeared virtually on “New Gold” and Bootie Brown joined “Stylo” with the late Bobby Womack on the screen behind, before a special finale with one of Oakland’s own.

Damon Albarn and Gorillaz perform on stage at Oyafestivalen on Aug. 10 in Oslo, Norway. 

Damon Albarn and Gorillaz perform on stage at Oyafestivalen on Aug. 10 in Oslo, Norway. 

Per Ole Hagen/Redferns

“Musicians from the Bay Area here have been instrumental to us. One I won’t name,” Albarn had teased earlier, before the reveal at the finale, “the originator, the one and only, Del the Funky Homosapien.”

The Oakland rapper then bound on stage for “Rock the House” and “Clint Eastwood,” the band’s debut single he rapped on in 2001, in a rapturous closing to the set.

I walked out of the venue under the giant Warriors screen at Thrive City plaza with thousands of grinning concertgoers, as happy and mesmerized by the music as when I first discovered Albarn’s genius decades ago.

The Gorillaz world tour moves on to two dates in Los Angeles over the weekend.  Find details on the Gorillaz website

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