Live Music + Gig Reviews

Tony Allen & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble @ Cargo, London

29 January 2009

Tony Allen

Tony Allen

It’s a struggle getting in to Cargo. Not only is it packed to bursting but members of Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have decided to play a song right inside the venue’s entrance. They finish to whoops and cheers and, eventually, we squeeze through, reaching the main room only by extreme in-breathing. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s popular way with impromptuosity would be attraction enough, but they’re merely a leading component in tonight’s all-star line-up.

It seems top-billed drummer Tony Allen can’t be mentioned in any article without being credited with inventing Afrobeat while drumming for Fela Kuti. Now 70, he’s still tapping the skins for an assortment of projects, not least The Good, The Bad & The Queen and the more recent Africa Express, during which he played with the brass boys of Illinois.

They’re reunited tonight for this one-off show. The eight-piece HBE err to the poppy end of the jazz spectrum, unbuttoning riff after riff against a projected backdrop in evocative black and white that says in no uncertain terms where they see themselves in the paean of musicians. Allen, perched stage right, takes turns playing with the horn section and with his own band, each of whom alternate instruments, swapping upright and standard bass and keyboards.

For one song Allen even sings, adding a sense of this being one big jamming session to the set. At other points he leaves the stage entirely to be replaced by another drummer. He has top billing, but Allen is not a man who needs to prove anything – and accordingly he never hogs attention for himself. Perhaps it’s for this reason that he’s most often the focus of the eyes of the audience.

Other friends acquired along the never-ending journey include the diminutive and charismatic Natty, arguably Britain’s brightest reggae prospect just now, and the ever-joyous Senegalese singer and composer Baaba Maal. Both take to the stage for what seem like impromptu collaborations, Maal’s fiery energy enlivening the place and contrasting with Natty’s no less appealing laid-back vibes.

The common thread to this association of artists from across the globe is, of course, Damon Albarn. Ahead of once again resuming his role as Blur‘s front man, he shambles on in a bomber jacket and baseball cap for a characteristically mopey number that punctuates the frenetic energy unleashed by everyone else.

There are big gaps between tracks when the horns go off or come on, and momentum slows. As with Africa Express, there’s never a sense of urgency, more a palpable enjoyment at collaboration, of sharing. With the revolving cast it feels like a miniature version of that project.

In the audience girls are perched on shoulders the better to see. “All these women came for Tony,” announces one of HBE as Allen smiles lopsidedly on. “He’s a rock star!” Items of clothing are sent flying to the stage; the Illinois boys express their tongue-in-cheek disquiet that some of the articles seem to be from men.

After two hours it’s after midnight. And just when we’d thought just about everything had been seen and heard, we were treated to a sax solo and a couple of encores with everybody trying to find stage space. Nobody seems to want to leave, but all good things must eventually come to an end.

“I’m sure you can get my vibes,” grins Allen, prompting football terrace style chanting of his name. Of course we do, Tony. And long may we.

buy Tony Allen MP3s or CDs
Spotify Tony Allen on Spotify

More on Tony Allen
Tony Allen: A Retrospective @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Tony Allen – There Is No End
Tony Allen – Secret Agent
Tony Allen & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble @ Cargo, London
Tony Allen – Lagos No Shaking