Gorillazs multimedia spectacular, in full effect.
Gorillaz's multimedia spectacular, in full effect. Eva Walker

It’s unclear what one is supposed to expect when going to see the “virtual band,” Gorillaz, play live. Prior to their show Saturday night at KeyArena, rumors swirled about the group playing anonymously behind a big projector screen. Or maybe they’d come out dressed in costume, appearing like the iconic animated characters from their music videos? Known for their curious cartoons and comforting, catchy vocals over unabashed hiphop beats, Gorillaz hit the stage Saturday night amid befuddlement—but, by the end of it, everyone knew exactly who they were.

Thousands flocked to KeyArena to celebrate the band many fans have been listening to for more than 15 years. But like Daft Punk, the identities of the players behind the set were largely unknown despite the fact many have seen music videos for songs like “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.” If a game show host were to stop Gorillaz fans walking into the arena and ask them what the lead singer looked like, just about everyone would lose the big prize (turns out he looks a lot like a clean-cut Thom Yorke).

Gorillaz vocalist Damon Albarn, in his happy place.
Gorillaz vocalist Damon Albarn, in his happy place. Eva Walker

But that’s part of the brilliance of the group, which formed in 1998 in Essex, England. As the show unfolded Saturday and the iconic animation played 40 feet high behind the band, audiences experienced the visuals in a unified manner. In a moment filled with wonderment, thousands of fans were treated to something very familiar: cartoons many have known since Gorillaz hit the mainstream. As the gaunt, spikey haired zombie-like creatures with underbites traversed glitter green galaxies and ran from attacking helicopters on their floating islands, Gorillaz’ lead singer Damon Albarn offered his signature soothing singing voice over the rugged, at times thrashing, at times symphonic music.

Albarn’s voice won’t stun you like, say, Aretha Franklin’s or even Jack White’s might, but the musician has sustained a career in popular music for over 25 years by blanketing his listeners in stellar, edgy harmonies. Blending addictively with his dramatic, beat-centric compositions, Albarn cast a spell on the Seattle crowd on Saturday—perhaps most evident when some 5,000 cell phones lit up the darkened arena during “All My Life,” as if daylight suddenly flooded a dank basement.

The cartoons threatened to overshadow Gorillazs thunderous music, but the huge crowd didnt mind at all.
The cartoons threatened to overshadow Gorillaz's thunderous music, but the huge crowd didn't mind at all. Eva Walker

The 12-piece band behind him, comprised of six soulful backup singers, drums, keys, and a couple guitars, shook the venue with swelling emotion, as if attempting to crumble the foundations upon which both KeyArena and the neighboring KEXP radio station stand. Yet, more than any bit of music, it was the familiar cartoons that stood out most. When you go see a favorite act, you never know if they’re going to play your favorite song or how the crowd will react when they do. But bearing witness to the stories-tall cartons, co-created by English comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, those colorful faces we’ve watched singing lyrics like, “I ain’t happy, I’m feelin’ glad/I got sunshine in a bag,” it was impossible not to feel a little childlike, as if watching a favorite TV show, as Gorillaz played the most badass live soundtrack underneath.

On tour supporting their 2017 release, Humanz, Gorillaz’s first album since 2010’s The Fall, the group played both old and new, hits and lesser known tracks. Yet each one bumped, providing a new level of excitement for the eager, merch-wearing crowd. Standouts included the brooding, “Last Living Souls” and the wistful, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead,” and about three-quarters through the set, the young and popular rapper Vince Staples joined the big band. The evening’s opening act, Staples provided an extra level of excitement, ripping through the chorus of Humanz’s second track, “Ascension,” spitting feverishly, “The sky’s falling baby/drop that ass ‘fore it crash.” Staples’s energy as a featured artist surpassed his opening set, during which he often seemed like just a voice floating betwixt the dim light and swirling stage mist.

This obscure Mark Rothko painting made an unexpected cameo.
This obscure Mark Rothko painting made an unexpected cameo. Eva Walker

But the night’s true musical peak came during the band’s encore, when Gorillaz unleashed mega hits, climaxing on the 23rd and final song with the singular “Demon Days.” Led by Albarn, who often stood front and center, conducting his cohorts, cavorting like a happy child on the edge of the stage, playing a variety of instruments from melodica to keytar to acoustic guitar, the front man of the world’s most famous virtual group left new and indelible images on the minds of his vast audience. His music filled the Emerald City arena, offering die-hard fans an array of brilliance.