September 10, 2012
For the last week or so, Damon Albarn has been travelling the country on a specially kitted-out train filled with stars of the African music world (and a few Brits), crew and journalists, christened the Africa Express. The 100-strong rabble has been rolling into cities like a wandering WOMAD, performing workshops and pop-up gigs before wowing audiences with a lengthy, collaboration-heavy show at the end of each night.
Tonight’s gig, at the newly developed Granary Square in Kings Cross, is the project’s last, and they aren’t prepared to go out on a whimper. Bathed in late-summer sunshine, the outdoor event has a festival feel to it as the pleasingly ramshackle nature of the onstage coming and going of performers builds momentum over a five-hour show.
Early highlights include a delicate cover of The xx’s ‘Crystalised’ by Martina Topley-Bird and Congolese vocalist Jupiter, backed by an unassuming John Paul Jones on bass. Jones is among a stellar list of stars that Albarn has pulled from his address book for tonight’s gig, and the Led Zep man returns sporadically through the evening, most noticeably on a run-through of ‘Kashmir’ with British MC Kano.
The show then gathers pace as Jack Steadman of Bombay Bicycle Club fame puts a highlife-based spin on recent single ‘Shuffle’, before rapper M.anifest gets a helping hand from Romeo of The Magic Numbers on his track ‘Suffer’.
M1 of legendary New York rap group Dead Prez brings the energy levels to a peak with a supercharged run-through of anthem ‘Hip-Hop’, the stage slowly filling with rhymers desperate to grab a verse (Brits Kano and Bashy among them) making for a riotous conclusion.
The momentum is upheld by explosive Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara and The Noisettes, whose respective high energy performances are interspersed with softer moments from Eliza Doolittle (covering Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’) and a Spoek Mathambo-featuring version of ‘People Get Ready’.
Albarn himself is behind one of the evening’s more touching moments: his piano-led version of Gorillaz song ‘On Melancholy Hill’ given added poignancy by the sublime vocal talent of Mali’s Rokia Traoré.
Traoré then takes lead on the evening’s first surprise: a killer version of her song ‘Dounia’ backed by Paul McCartney and the return of John Paul Jones (unfortunately strumming a mandolin, not having a bass-off with Macca). It’s an intriguing moment, ruined only by the sea of camera phones obstructing the view and, to his credit, not by McCartney himself, who enters the collaborative spirit of the occasion and slips on and off to little fanfare.
Indeed, when he returns towards the finale with Gruff Rhys and Tony Allen among the performers, the Beatle even resists the temptation to lead a 30-minute sing-along of ‘Hey Jude’, opting instead for ‘Coming Up’ and Wings track ‘Goodnight Tonight’, before the ever sharp-suited Malian guitarist Amadou closes the night and tour with his ‘Masiteladi’, everyone onstage for a Last Waltz-type finale.
It’s clear that all the artists involved with the Africa Express project have fully embraced the concept, and there are random onstage appearances from many of them throughout the show to simply grin at the crowd and take personal photos. Though some may dismiss it as an ego-massaging, industry back-patting session, it’s hard to not be enthralled by the sheer number of talented performers onstage each night, never mind trying to gauge what a logistical nightmare the whole experience must have been.
Albarn’s post-Blur projects have been nothing if not divisive, but surely this one must be considered among his best.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON