Demon Dayz Festival review – Gorillaz and guests share an unforgettable carnival of synths, spectacle and unity

Dreamland Amusement Park, Margate

There are few fan bases as diverse and plain dedicated to their band as Gorillaz’ fans. Young and old, dark skinned and light skinned, speaking English, French, Japanese, and more. From Edinburgh, Surrey, Belgium, and beyond, they came to be part of the band’s first one-day festival, Demon Dayz.

They come from different cultures and harbour a love for different music. But what unites them all is their urgent and undying thirst for this madcap idea created by masterminds Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. After all, why else would they make the pilgrimage, lords knows how many miles, all the way to the seaside town of Margate – a once a famed British holiday destination, whose amusement park, Dreamland, has now been repaired and revitalised – to see the group, and their collaborators, in the flesh?

They promised a “carnival for the end of time”. And what they gave the 15,000 people lucky enough to attend this sold-out festival on June 10 was a series of raw performances by their collaborators – including Little Simz, Kano and Kali Uchis – and plenty of fan-pleasing fun.

GORILLAZ

Gorillaz two-hour headline performance was the biggest highlight that sweltering Saturday.

The group’s first proper album in seven years, Humanz, didn’t leave us with the same sense of all-out wonderment that their previous albums have. So, naturally, we were curious to see what the live environment, and an audience of devotees, would do for the band and its songs.

They started theatrically before they’d even taken the stage. Band leader Damon Albarn and the rest of Gorillaz’ live band emerged, dressed in all black, with face masks and pointed hoods, on the far right-hand side of the crowd. In unison, they thrust their arms into the sky, ringing a bell they each carried, and steadily snaked their way through the parting crowd to the main stage.

This was an international coming home party for Gorillaz. When Albarn finally unmasked himself and welcomed the crowd, he was greeted was joyous adoration. Surrounded by the very people who love their songs most, the music took on a far greater power than it would have at a larger festival, such as Glastonbury or Latitude.

Hits such as ‘DARE’, ‘Feel Good Inc’, ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Stylo’ (tribute to Bobby Womack) were played with gusto from the band, as the audience – many of whom were seeing Gorillaz for the first time – sang along loudly. Honestly, having seen Gorillaz ourselves in 2010, we weren’t sure if the energy would compare. Joining fans keenly chorusing the words to ‘El Manaña’ and ‘Kids with Guns’, well… we got chills.

Songs from Humanz commanded much of the two-hour set, and guests including Vince Staples, De La Soul, Danny Brown, Pusha T, Kelela, and more, all stepped in to play their part. Early favourites, ‘Saturnz Barz’, with Popcaan, and ‘She’s My Collar’, with Kali Uchis in a sparkling green cat suit, were a joy. Meanwhile, dance songs ‘Charger’, which features the voice of Grace Jones, and ‘Strobelite’, with Peven Everett, unleashed the carefree raver lifestyle that many of us wish we could live week in, week out.

Others songs, such as ‘Sex Murder Party’ and ‘We Got the Power’, took on a whole new life. On the former, aided by Albarn’s frenzied keyboard jabs, guest vocalists Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz scream the song’s eponymous hook with wild pleasure. While on the latter, the band was joined by Blur’s Graham Coxon on guitar and The Savages’ Jehnny Beth on vocals, who was held aloft by the crowd like a saviour, as the 21st century speedway music rocketed to its crescendo.

By far the biggest surprise was the back-to-back performance of ‘Out of Body’, with singer Kilo Kish, and as-yet-unreleased Gorillaz song, ‘Garage Palace’, with rapper Little Simz. Hearing and seeing Kilo Kish perform vocal cartwheels with her cherry-fresh voice, over a space-age dance loop, was incredible – topped off by one of Gorillaz’ backing singer’s filling in for Imani Vonsha with a humongous cry of gospel passion during its outro. Next, was ‘Garage Palace’, and in the words of The Pharcyde: “Oh, sh*t!”. We’d seen Little Simz earlier in the day (see below), and rappers twice her age would hesitate when faced with the irregular, runaway beat of ‘Garage Palace’. Not Simz. The instant the synthetic key tones began, she was off, flawlessly weaving her words over and under the beat like an Olympian through an obstacle course. “Can it be that this is our time?” Simz raps during the song. This was her time and it was undoubtedly a moment that will long be remembered by those who witnessed it.

Gorillaz is a massive production, and nothing puts that into focus like their colossal live performances. Combining urgent-sounding dance music and all-out pop, melancholic blues and frantic hip hop, Gorillaz are band that defies categorisation. They’re performance, and the festival in general, was a roaring success.

“Two words for you,” said Albarn during the band’s final song, ‘Demon Days’. “The first is unity. And through unity we find love.” The band gave its plethora of multicultural supporters both that evening. In these times of stark division that counts a whole lot.

BEST OF THE REST AT DEMON DAYZ

Before Gorillaz, there was lots more going on that Saturday.

The typically dull British weather that teases the country’s summer festivals had made way for a perfect summer’s day. No clouds, just festivals goers – in bands t-shirts, from Hendrix to MF Doom; floral-patterned shirts; skirts and short-shorts; and fans in Gorillaz cosplay – getting high off of the vibe at this musical extravaganza.

Joining Gorillaz’ festival line-up were long-time collaborators De La Soul and Kano, as well as several of the band’s latest cohorts – featured most recently on their new album, Humanz – including Danny Brown, Vince Staples, Kali Uchis, and reggae artist Popcaan.

Here’s a round-up of the best things we witnessed at Demon Dayz, besides the headliners.

KILO KISH

New York’s Kilo Kish opened the show at the supporting stage (known as the Hall by the Sea), with a part motionless, part maniac performance of songs from her 2016 debut, Reflections in Real Time, which saw her writhing about the stage, and smashing a suitcase on the stage floor until its contents were scattered everywhere. The nuances of her electronic R&B are admitted a tough sell for some, but her smooth timbre and outrageous physicality more than made up for that.

DE LA SOUL

They’ve been in the game for some 25 years now, but the hip hop godfathers that go by the name De La Soul still know how to get a crowd going. Taking the main stage in mid-afternoon, Pos, Dave and Maseo loosened things up with their distinct audience engagement. Their brief set was all about the audience, as they got people busting moves to ‘Oooh’, ‘A Roller Skating Jam Named “Saturdays”’ and ‘Stakes is High’, and split the crowd in half to see which side was more hyperactive.

KALI UCHIS

When we returned to the indoor supporting stage, Colombian songstress Kali Uchis had brought carnival season early. Dressed in a bikini and thigh-high slit dress, both covered in hundreds of sequins which sparkled brilliantly under the lights, she was in her element as she, and her enthusiastic band, flooded the warehouse venue with vivacious Latin rhythms from her EP, Por Vida. Her recently released single, ‘Tyrant’, also proved to be just as moreish live as is it on record.

LITTLE SIMZ

If you have the opportunity to see Little Simz live, take it. Don’t think, just go. It’d had been a while since we’d joined in an audience that is completely losing its collective sh*t. Let’s be absolutely clear: to see Little Simz live is to experience an unstoppable force of nature.

Little Simz spits more words per minute than a crew of sports commentators – on record and in person. Dashing onto the stage, she spared not one ounce of energy in connecting with the Demon Dayz audience. We raised our hands to the sky and followed Simz’ chants of “Many, many, many men”. She was in her element as she body popped to the treehouse trap of ‘Trust Issues’. We waved from side to side over the bittersweet ‘God Bless Mary’ – a tribute to Simz’ neighbour for putting up with her disruptive musical obsession. She took up her “G-tar” for a laconic rap about a break-up (‘Interlude (from Age 101: Drop X)’). And she spat pure fire on favourites ‘Dead Body’ and the Alice in Wonderland-tinged ‘Picture Perfect’.

“I just got back from China, so my heads all over the gaff,” she told the audience before dropping her final song, ‘Bars Simzson’. “But I’m still gonna give you 110 per cent. You gotta give me that, too!” And with that gun fingers were raised, water was dashed and Simz live bars had everyone leaping about with enough force to sink a sailboat. With the exception of Gorillaz, her set was truly the most exciting thing we witnessed all day.

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Images: Jamie Hewlett (main image); Aaron Lee (live photos)