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.

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Contributor

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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