By the time the train arrived in Manchester at 5.50pm on Wednesday – a collective of more than 80 musicians on board their own specially chartered vehicle – one anxiety was that the evening's show would be too slick an affair. Previous Africa Express performances, dating back to a famous appearance at Glastonbury in 2007, have been one-offs, whereas this time, the mutating cast of characters involved were on a proper tour, albeit one involving a novel form of transport between shows. This was day four, and as well as gigs in Middlesbrough and Glasgow, there'd been pop-up performances, including one on the platform of Carlisle station to an audience of startled tea-time commuters. It's not every day that the likes of Damon Albarn, Baaba Maal, Tony Allen, Carl Barât, Rokia Traoré and the emerging Congolese star Jupiter Bokondji descend anywhere to play a gig together, let alone one where the acts are half-hanging out of a locomotive carriage.

Of course, with such a setup – and less than an hour and a half between arrival at Manchester's Victoria station and doors opening at the Ritz – there would always be room for improvisation and surprises. The four-hour show began with the Malian guitarist Afel Boucoum easing everyone into proceedings, before he was joined by Albarn, one of the founding figures of the enterprise. He discussed the distressing political situation in Mali briefly, but thereafter there were no messages or hectoring from the stage, simply a succession of different permutations of acts: the new singer Kyla La Grange with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté and producer Richard Russell, for instance; or former Libertines member Barât with Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers and Amadou Bagayoko, the latter striking Jimi Hendrix-style poses on a thrilling cover of the Clash's Train in Vain; or Albarn with former Fela Kuti drummer Allen for a version of an old Wings song – as if things couldn't be stranger.

It became a bit like the musical equivalent of fantasy football: the South African Spoek Mathambo has released a cover of Joy Division's Control, and here was that band's Peter Hook joining him on stage. With his bass, as ever, slung so as to scrape his knees, Hook might be instantly recognisable, but there was no emphasis on star power, making it very different from a normal gig; and in its first couple of hours it felt a bit stop-start. But like a train, it built up an unstoppable momentum, taking the crowd on a true journey.

• The Guardian is the tour's media partner.

• What have you been to see lately? Tell us about it on Twitter using #GdnReview


Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tony Allen and Rizzle Kicks join Damon Albarn's Africa Express
Artists will cross the UK by train in September for a concert series featuring music from Europe, America and Africa

Sean Michaels

14, Aug, 2012 @9:06 AM

Africa Express: Paul McCartney and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage part two - video

The Africa Express tour, featuring over 80 musicians including Damon Albarn and Baaba Maal, finished its epic tour of the UK by train with a gig at Granary Square in King's Cross in London. Among the special guests on the night was Sir Paul McCartney, who joined the collective to play two old Wings songs – and you can see footage here in this exclusive film

Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye

15, Sep, 2012 @11:00 AM

Article image
Africa Express: a magical mystery tour

Eighty musicians, one train and a string of stops across Britain. This could be the most extraordinary tour of the year, says Caspar Llewellyn Smith

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

25, Aug, 2012 @11:05 PM

Baaba Maal among leading musicians to board the Africa Express

Baaba Maal, Damon Albarn and Bombay Bicycle are among the lineup of musicians who will tour the UK by train in September

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

31, Jul, 2012 @3:34 PM

Article image
Africa Express in Marseille - review

The music collective rolled into town with performances from Bassekou Kouyate, Jupiter Bokondji and Damon Albarn, among many others, who kept the crowd going all night

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

24, Oct, 2013 @2:26 PM

Article image
Damon Albarn and Baaba Maal: All aboard the Africa Express!

A collaboration of African and western musicians, Africa Express is now headlining festivals and planning a huge train tour of the UK this year. Damon Albarn and Baaba Maal explain how it came about

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

10, May, 2012 @7:30 PM

Watch Africa Express at Glastonbury 2007 – video

The musical collective known as Africa Express played its first-ever proper gig at the Glastonbury festival in 2007. Here is Algerian singer Rachid Taha covering the Clash's Rock the Casbah with Damon Albarn, Billy Bragg, Baaba Maal and more

01, Sep, 2012 @10:00 AM

Article image
A week in Mali with Africa Express – Olugbenga Adelekan's diary

Metronomy's Olugbenga Adelekan and this diary of his week in Mali recording an album with the likes of Damon Albarn and Brian Eno, and local musicians

18, Oct, 2013 @3:17 PM

Article image
Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes – review
Africa Express's mission to promote co-operation between African and western musicians continues apace on this magnificent compilation, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

05, Dec, 2013 @10:15 PM

Article image
Tony Allen: Fela Kuti, Damon Albarn and me
Tony Allen: He was the drummer for Fela Kuti throughout the master’s groundbreaking years and has helped shape Afrobeat ever since. He chooses five top moments from his 55-year career

Tony Allen

09, Oct, 2014 @4:24 PM