Thirtieth Anniversary Tour, Bridgewater Hall, 7 November 2010

Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the seminal pop-reggae album ‘Signing On’ that caught the mood of early 1980s Britain with mass unemployment and economic deprivation, the current tour has been partly overshadowed by the absence of the band’s regular lead singer, Ali Campbell, after a fallout and his replacement by Campbell brother number three, Duncan, henceforth assuming the lead vocal role. This fact did little, though, to detract from the overall sound of UB40 which remains as tight as it ever was back in the day. If the sheer charisma of the more experienced Ali was missed, then Campbell junior still seemed blessed with the family’s gifted vocal chords. It is noteworthy that this family tradition goes back even further to father Ian who was leader of the Ian Campbell folk group in the 1960s. The first half of the evening was devoted to the ‘Signing Off’ album in its entirety, stand out numbers among them being ‘King’, ‘Burden of shame’ and ‘Madame Medusa’. These were embellised by excerpts of political speeches such as ‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King and infamously ‘The lady is not for turning’ by Mrs. Thatcher. In general the sound created by the band matched the mellow and rich hues of the original album. In fact UB40 provided a gateway for many young white music fans (now forty-somethings and beyond) into the bona fide world of reggae and there was a distinct whiff of nostalgia to proceedings.

A stabbing horn section was led by the ever excellent Brian Travers on saxophone whilst Robin Campbell gave out concise instructions, with younger brother Duncan being content to play a more passive role, possibly in deference to his better known predecessor. For some, however, in the audience, the album was released before they had even been born, yet they still managed to connect with the irresistible rhythms. Roughly speaking there was a 70:30 divide between the older (this scribe included) and younger members of the audience, though it is certainly true to say that the younger ones made the most noise.

The second half of the concert changed focus and in place of the protest songs that had characterised the rootsier side to the band’s repertoire, there was a marked transition to the poppier songs that reworked the original Jamaican classics of the rocksteady and early reggae period of the mid-1960s and early 1970s. This was the era in which labels such as Trojan records introduced youths to the sounds of reggae music and the Campbells were clearly caught up in this devotion to 45s and compilation albums. Thus the proverbial spliffs and dreadlocks were instead replaced by the omnipresent iphones of a new generation of reggae fans. It as at this stage that the crowd really came to light. Of course among the favourites, Tony Tribe’s ‘Red Red Wine’ took pride of place and was particularly well received while ‘Kingston town’, originally by Lord Creator, had a particular resonance to the evening. The royalties from the reworked songs were used to help the original performer, then down on his luck and in deeply precarious economic circumstances, to keep alive and well. In general UB40 are extremely well viewed in Jamaica where they are seen as genuine promoters of the island’s greatest cultural export to the world. They are not, however, averse to more recent reggae beats and the ragga riddims of ‘Boom shaka laka’ went down a storm as did another song, intriguingly devoted to the people of Manchester, ‘Rat in my kitchen’. One hopes that this was no reflection on the city’s fine culinary tradition!

Surprisingly, perhaps, UB40 did not reprise ‘One in ten’, one of the most compelling songs from their earlier repertoire nor did they showcase the Jimmy Cliff anthem ‘Many rivers to cross’ which was a big hit for them. One should in fact view the contribution of UB40 to pop music in terms of pioneering a new pathway for acts such as Lily Allen and Amy Whinehouse who have, among other genres, incorporated reggae rhythms into the very fabric of their sound. One gripe. It was probably not lost on some that that the entrance fee would have been well beyond the means of the current signing on generation and this seemed to go counter to the band’s earlier ethos of aligning themselves with the disadvantaged. This aside, the music was exemplary.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993