The Southbank Centre's annual Meltdown festival has consistently served up a delightfully eclectic collection of concerts, collated by a diverse range of artists from punk poet Patti Smith to reggae great Lee Scratch Perry. This year sees the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman in the director's chair for the 16th year of the week-long programme of gigs. And the elder statesman of free jazz couldn't have picked a better opener for his summer series than Afrobeat legend Tony Allen.
Music PRs and lazy journalists are renowned for overusing the label "legend" but in Allen's case the epithet is more than fitting. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940, the young musician taught himself to play by soaking up the styles of jazz drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach.
By the time he was 20, Allen was earning a living playing jazz and highlife drums for various groups, until he met multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti in 1964. The rest is history: the two were to form a partnership that lasted until the beginning of the Eighties, with Allen's distinctive driving drum style forming the pulsing backbone to a new form of music that they created, Afrobeat. "The bass drum patterns are unique to me. I'd never play one, one. Any drummer can play that straight beat. But that's just like putting a metronome in there," Allen explains.
The gig at the Southbank is billed as "a Meltdown launch party" and the Front Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall provides the ideal venue for such a celebration. It's a sunny summer evening by the Thames and the majority of the crowd is enjoying the balmy weather on the balcony listening to the DJs mixing together tracks that take in the great and the good of African music. There's a buzz about the place which contrasts sharply with some of the stuffier venues that tend to host "world music" gigs in the capital. This music is about celebration and revolution, not about sitting stock still in an auditorium silently nodding away as if at a classical recital.
By the time Allen and his accomplished band take to the makeshift stage at 9.45pm, the crowd are ready to lap up whatever the 69-year-old is ready to throw at them. And the band don't disappoint. The setlist is based around new album Secret Agent (a superb return to form after the slightly underwhelming Lagos, No Shaking of 2006), blended with some classic earlier tracks. Allen sits to the front of the stage on the left, half facing his well-drilled band, half the appreciative audience. The musicians, most of whom are credited on the new album, must be half his age and bounce around, clearly loving every minute.
In contrast Allen appears to barely break sweat, effortlessly producing the loose, technically adept and complex grooves that drive the songs forward. It's like watching a master at work as he caresses the skins – while most drummers thrash away as if possessed, Allen appears detached, watching on from a distance while the rest of the band perform. Even when he treats us to a drum solo, the maestro is measured and modest.
The songs blend effortlessly into each other, from the opener "Asiko" from the Black Voices album, through the highlights from Secret Agent – including the title track and "Elewon Po" with its "Too many prisoners" chorus – to "Kindness" from Home Cooking and its catchy refrain of "Don't take my kindness for weakness", which stays long in the head after Allen and co have left the stage. Their final offering, "Eparapo", culminates with the crowd clapping along to Allen's infectious rhythms. It's an impressive feelgood performance that will be hard to better this year. And on this evidence, surely it's only a matter of time before Tony Allen himself is invited to curate his own Meltdown.