UB40 is the most successful British reggae/pop group of all time, making music and performing since 1978. Hailing from Birmingham the band have gone on to sell over 70 million records becoming one of the most successful groups in the world, picking up Grammy, Brit and numerous other awards over the years.
The group has had a few changes over the past decade. Original lead singer and founding member Ali Campbell left the band after 30 years in 2008, shortly followed by Mickey Virtue and a few years later Astro left UB40 to team up with Campbell and Virtue. This lead to some confusion for the fans as both groups were using the name and last year legal action was sought over who could use it.
So the original band now fronted by Ali’s brother Duncan Campbell on lead vocals is UB40 – whilst the breakaway members go by ‘UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue’.
Hopefully that is clear and the band playing Plymouth Pavilions was UB40 with original members Robin Campbell on vocal and guitar, James Brown on drums, Norman Hassan on percussion, Earl Falconer on bass and vocals and Brian Travers lead saxophonist. As mentioned before Robin and Ali’s brother Duncan is now lead vocalist with Martin Meredith on saxophone, Laurence Parry on trumpet and Tony Mullings on keyboard.
The members cite Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding as influences and a lifelong aficionado of ska and reggae.
Support for UB40 is Birmingham born Gold Dubs who mixes Reggae, Dub, Ragga and Garage. Gold Dubs has gained recognition from the likes of BBC Radio One with his collaboration and re-mixes of artist like Aswad, Roots Manuva and Top Cat. For tonight’s show it is a more mainstream vibe to appeal to the slightly older middle aged crowd. The audience are quite laid back and it isn’t until Gold Dub chats to the crowd and plays Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’ that people begin to sing along and move about a bit.
This lack of audience participation is no reflection on Gold Dubs as UB40 themselves were hard pushed to get much motivation from the crowd. Maybe it was because it was a Sunday night, but the lack of audience energy or dancing felt a little disappointing to me. When I would have normally been dancing waving my arms in the arm singing my heart out to classics numbers like ‘1 in 10’, after my initial whoop and punch of the air, I felt I had better retreat quietly and respectfully to my seat, so as not to upset my more reserved neighbours.
UB40 have some excellent percussion from the effervescent Yemeni and Welsh decent Norman Hassan and drumming from James Brown – these deserve to be danced about to and arms swaying, punching the air to accentuate the beat and lyrics. But this was not to be for the Plymouth show.
With the draped backdrop and predominately blue and purple lighting picking out the brass players on their raised platform, the show has a Big Band feel to it. There are two further raised areas either side of the stage for drums and percussion, with the Campbell brothers centre stage.
There is a definite uniform/costume for the members, smart black polished shoes, black or white shirts with the Sax players in waistcoats. Duncan wears a Fred Perry style top making them all look like natty dressers, smartly pressed and made an effort.
A 20 song set with an extra 4 for the encore there was definitely something from every decade and songs to please all audience members. The show began with the title track of the 1981 ‘Present Arms’ album, I grew up listening to this record and have always appreciated the bands socially and politically charged lyrics. The band name refers to the signing-on document issued to people claiming unemployment benefit - UB40 stood for Unemployment Benefit, Form 40.
After the recent election results I was looking for some empowerment and comradery during the likes of ‘One in Ten’, but looked around realising people had come out for a relaxing Sunday evening to listen to some enjoyable tunes where perhaps the lyrical content were not of so much importance. This was further highlighted when the cover of a Neil Diamond song from their ‘Labour of Love’ 1983 album ‘Red Red Wine’ started to play. Cheers from all around and even a few screams/squeals from the predominately female audience with even some of the seated members standing. At song 20 in the set this felt the moment a lot of people had come for with many phones being held aloft and for the first time a real sense of the crowd singing along.
The second song they played was ‘Sweet Sherry’ followed by ‘You Could Meet Somebody’ from 1986 ‘Rat in the Kitchen’ album, then ‘Higher Ground’ from 1993 ‘Promises and Lies’ and then ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ from the 1983 ‘Labour of Love’ which got some reaction from the crowd with arms swaying from side to side – Robin even remarked ‘That’s more like it’.
Robin performs lead vocal on several classic songs and there is richness to his tone and his harmonies enhance the band’s sound. Brian Travers takes centre stage several times during the show and it’s a deserved position with his phenomenal saxophone playing.
Some highlights were the fantastic musicality of the brass section, with superb trumpet playing from Laurence Parry who was bringing some cool and suave looks to the ladies at the front of the stage! Another great moment was when Hassan took lead vocals and entertained us with a few groovy moves.
The moments I felt Duncan really shined were when singing the songs off their latest album ‘Getting Over The Storm’ as these are original songs only he has sung and he is not in the shadow of Ali Campbell. Duncan’s vocals are a great fit for the band as replacement for Ali. There were moments I missed the distinct tones of Ali as a lifelong listeners to their music and it is his voice on the records, but the band work very well as they are now.
Musically everything was on top form, it was just the lacklustre crowd that let it down for me. From the seated area it was easy to see the one man dancing around or count the 5 arms swaying to a song. At one point Duncan said, with a slight sarcastic tone, ‘One from Labour of Love as I can see you are all dying to sing along – if you don’t know this one then we’re in trouble’.
Great performance, I just wish the energy and high spirits that the likes of ‘Food for Thought’ inspired could have maintained throughout.
Review by Molly Mole
Photography by Julian Baird Photography www.julianbaird.com