The new music economy relies on cross-promotion and artists reaching out to different scenes. And the rise of streaming means everyone can hop between audiences with ease, hence those singles apparently by one person but with a cricket team’s worth of other names credited. As the Beach Boys once sang, ‘you need a mess of help to stand alone’.
Alongside the featured artist sausage factory there are musical patrons. Take Damon Albarn, who has spent much of the past 20 years elevating the work of other artists, using the strength of his own name — made, of course, as the frontman of Blur — to promote music that might otherwise slip past his core audience. There has been Africa Express, the ongoing series of collaborations between American and European artists and their counterparts from Africa and the Middle East. And there has been Gorillaz, the ‘cartoon band’ which initially began as a way for Albarn to make music outside the spotlight, but has slowly transformed into a grand, rolling revue, featuring a cast of dozens.
The two Gorillaz shows at the O2 Arena last week were the first full-scale arena shows in this country since before the pandemic — the first night for NHS workers, the second for the rest of us — and the atmosphere was febrile. The intro to every song was cheered whether or not it had any real tune, and the ones the audience actually liked provoked a moshpit that extended well back onto the arena floor. It felt both disconcerting and thrilling; I don’t think it was just shock at being in a huge crowd that made the audience response seem much louder than it was before March 2020. I’m pretty sure there was a genuine delight at being among people.
Albarn fronted the group for a little over half the set, but the guests rolled out one after another. Robert Smith of The Cure was precisely as he has always been: yelpy and shrill and fluffy and strangely charismatic; Leee John, once of extravagantly camp Eighties Britfunk band Imagination, slinked across the stage and hit his falsetto perfectly. But younger artists made their impressions too — Jelani Blackman, Alicai Harley. And best of all was the young rapper Little Simz, who with ‘Garage Palace’ sent a huge jolt of electricity through the room. In three minutes she won a whole bunch of new fans.
Albarn seemed just as thrilled as everyone else. Even muddy sound (the bass sometimes crushed every other tone and detail was lost though to be charitable, no sound engineers have done arena shows in 18 months, so a little rustiness is to be expected) didn’t stifle the mood. It was all of British music — the sound of punk rock, rap, Carnival, lush ballads, all rolled into one. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. It was human.
A younger musical Medici is Matty Healy of The 1975, who has been working with scores of young artists over the past few years, and doubtless bringing them to the attention of his vast and dedicated fanbase. There has been the occasional complaint that when he writes with other artists, they end up sounding like The 1975, and you could hear that a little with Holly Humberstone. Her default setting is pretty traditional at heart — a little bit folky, a little bit drivetime — with modern nuts and bolts: ‘Overkill’ could have been a Tom Petty song. But the one she has written with Healy, ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’, stood out like an anti-vaxxer in a GP’s surgery — all chilly digital soul and vocal lines tumbling over each other. Fantastic, just not much like the rest of the set.
There’s a temptation — and let’s be honest, it is usually older men who succumb to it — to dismiss the work of young artists, especially young female artists, for being, well, too young. Which seems to me to be ridiculous: youth is when we feel things most vividly and dramatically, when emotions exist in rainbow colours rather than the pastels and greys of middle age. I’d far rather very young songwriters reflected that than genuflecting before Bob Dylan.
Humberstone, who is 21, has a knack for capturing that intensity of feeling. For example, she uses the everyday phrase ‘drop dead’ to create an emotional melodrama on the track of the same name. Her voice is terrific: able to be a whisper or strident, and she writes songs with actual choruses and hooks.