There’s been a lot in the press lately about the tribulations of UB40. They’ve been declared bankrupt, suffered acrimonious defections and are currently involved in legal action against three former members who have set up shop using a variant of the UB40 name, but a packed out gig on Friday, November 14th at Scunthorpe Baths gave us a reminder of the other side of the story, which is that after 30 years in the business there are still five original members in the line up (some kind of record surely?), they have a fine new album (the country tinged Getting Over the Storm) and they can still pack out a gig venue with fans who know every word of every song.
Of course a large percentage of the crowd remember the band from the early days, but it would be a mistake to write them off as a mums and dads’ band, because there were plenty there whose parents were in the infants (that’s kindergarten to you) when the band first broke through with the double A-side “King” and “Food For Thought” and these young whippersnappers are all up singing and dancing with us old timers. Whatever the secret of crossing over from one generation to another might be, UB40 have mastered it and then some.
The band were on great form, obviously enjoying themselves, swapping round positions and giving everyone a turn at the front. With two percussionists, three sets of keys and three horns and many of the band able to switch between instruments, they have plenty of options to keep things varied and they exploited that to the full. The horn section were very much to the fore, even more so I think than when I saw them in Leeds earlier in the year (QRO review), and for large parts of the show there were effectively three frontmen as saxophonist Brian Travers came stage front with Duncan and Robin Campbell, and both percussionist Norman Hassan and bassist Earl Falconer got their own moments in the spotlight. Of the senior band members, only drummer Jimmy Brown didn’t get his moment in the sun so he got to lead the band back on for the encores. It all seems like a democratic and happy ship.
With more than fifty U.K. chart singles it can’t be easy picking a set list for a UB40 gig, but a glance at their recent history shows that they like to vary the mix, but there was no place once again for my favourite “Rat In Mi Kitchen”, nor for any of the songs on which they collaborated with Chrissie Hynde or Robert Palmer. Inevitably a large part of the set was made up of hits, but there was still room for a few relative obscurities from the back catalogue, including “Silent Witness” from their 1980 debut album Signing Off and versions of Jamaican music pioneer Theo Beckford’s “Easy Snappin’” and Hopeton Lewis’s “Boom Shaka Laka”, both of which appeared on the band’s fourth covers album, Labour of Love IV. UB40 have never been averse to cover versions and have always had a knack for finding material that suits them, so it’s not surprising that it’s the Getting Over the Storm songs that are the standouts in this set.
According to press reports it was the band’s decision to cut a country album that led to the departure of Astro in 2013, but on the evidence of this performance that seems to have been an overreaction, firstly because history suggests that the links between country and reggae are much stronger than you might think (check out the great 3CD Country Reggae Compilation on Trojan if proof is needed), and secondly because the country element in many of the songs on the album is so diluted with reggae as to leave only a homeopathic memory of the original active ingredient.
Crossover albums always run the risk of descending into affectionate parody, but there’s no doubt about the reggae credentials of UB40’s covers of Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain”, The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” or especially of Vince Gill’s 1990s hit “If You Ever Have Forever In Mind”, which takes the soft country ballad, adds a skanky beat and some great dirty sax from Travers and turns it into an instant classic.
And the show rounds off, of course, with “Kingston Town” and “Can’t Help Fallin’ In Love With You”, everybody leaves happy and singing and after a master class in great pop music how could they not?