Friday 29 March 2019: the date Britain was due to leave the EU, but didn’t. “Today is a mad day in this country,” says Damon Albarn on stage here early in the evening, “we’ve had many mad days, but this is the next mad day. If you know what I mean?”
It’s not simply a neat coincidence that Africa Express have chosen tonight to put on a symbolic display of diversity, collaboration and unity. It’s very much intended, an illustration of what more than 100 disparate performers can achieve with organisation, communication and willingness.
Tonight is significant for another reason. It’s a homecoming for Damon Albarn, the big top tent housing Africa Express: The Circus is erected just a few streets away from where he grew up. He spent his early life in Leytonstone, east London, before his family moved to rural Essex. ‘Everyday Robots’, his 2014 solo album, was rooted in this area. For Damon, it’s an opportunity to revisit old haunts, including his primary school where, on Friday morning, he ran a music workshop and conducted a group of schoolkids as they went bananas to The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’.
Africa Express rarely gets together, but when it does, it specialises in generating one-off moments through unique combinations. The fact that, at one point, tonight delivers the incongruous sight of Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner playing ‘Fester Skank’ with Lethal Bizzle is one surprise in a night of many.
There are more conventional headline grabbing moments. The biggest of which is the return of Blur. The crowd erupts when they clock the recognisable figure of Graham Coxon on the flank of the stage, before he, Damon, Dave Rowntree and Alex James – the bassist looks like he’s headlining Isle of Wight festival, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth – stroll out to the middle. There’s low-key delivery of ‘Clover Over Dover’ (a pointed and beautiful choice for the now non-Brexit day), and ‘Tender’ sounds glorious backed by the London Community Gospel Choir and 3,000 additional voices in the crowd. While what appears to be an unscheduled dash through of ‘Song 2’ is fun and the place predictably transforms into a sea of pogoing and tossed pints, it’s slightly out of step with the vibe of the rest of the evening.
But it’s like people know that’s the show’s apex. After that, artists struggle to wrestle the attention of the room in quite the same way, although Michael Kiwanuka does a valiant job with ‘Black Man In A White World’ and, late on, the aforementioned Bizzle/Zinner hook up is sublime in its unlikeliness.
Before that, Slaves performing The Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ with Paul Simonon on bass (and vocals) and Dave Rowntree on drums and The Good, the Bad & The Queen performing ‘Nineteen Seventeen’ are both mid-evening high points. Musically a nod to an era that lost a legend this week in The Beat’s Ranking Roger, who received a deserved mention.
Not all the highlights belong to the biggest names, though. Early in the evening (it began at 6pm), Georgia’s rendition of ‘City In Lights’ stuns the crowd into silence. Likewise, when Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, Joan As Policewoman, Rokia Traore and Dobet Gnahoré join forces on a soaring interpretation of Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free’. There’s then a slowed-down version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’ led by Joan As Policewoman, that, strange as it is, somehow works.
More impressive is that the momentum of the show never really drops, given that it lasts more than 300 minutes. It ends, well-over curfew, with a party of artists dancing. Damon doesn’t want to leave the stage, a manager visibly trying to encourage the band to stop. For a moment there’s confusion about what’s going on, a reluctance to go, and that seems appropriate on a day like today.