Review: UB40 live

Stephen Pennell watches an old favourite come up with the goods again.

Leamington Assembly Rooms,
Friday April 12th.

Looking forward to this gig also had me looking back to the early eighties, when Birmingham ruled the charts. If Dexy’s , The Beat or Duran Duran weren’t on Top of the Pops, you could usually rely on Musical Youth or UB40 to fly our flag. And as a football fan arriving at a pub full of locals in a strange town, the best way to announce the presence of a coachload of Brummies was either to confuse everyone by asking for a pint of mild or put UB40 on the juke box.

They were world-famous, but undeniably ours. They say there are six degrees of separation between any two people on earth, but it seems to me that there are zero degrees between UB40 and the people of Brum, because so many of us have a personal history that we share with them.

My mate was in the Red Red Wine video – he’s a football coach in America now but I still work with his brother. Another bloke at work has been sulking for decades because he reckons it was between him and Astro for a place in the band and his bitterness about not getting the gig endures. A friend borrowed my copy of Signing Off to impress a girl who was coming round to his house – it obviously worked because they’ve stayed together longer than the original members of the band and I never got it back. I bought it again of course – I named my son Tyler after the opening song – and if you haven’t proudly pointed out their landmark studio in Digbeth to an out-of-towner, or played pool with the band at the Oddfellows Arms in Sherlock Street, you’re either too young to have done so or you’re not actually a Brummie.

Yet their appeal is global. When a pal of mine met his wife in London (she is from Christchurch, New Zealand), he was into bands like PiL and The Cult and really disliked the only one she raved about – UB40. He took her to many gigs, but never to see her favourites. He promised that if ever UB40 came to Christchurch after they emigrated, he would take her to see them. He thought he’d be safe on the other side of the world but unbeknown to him, the band had their first number one single in New Zealand and the love between band and the Kiwi public is mutual.

One day his wife came home from work, excited that UB40 were coming over. He couldn’t believe his (bad) luck but agreed to get tickets. He went along in trepidation (his idea of reggae is Steel Pulse and Yellowman), but in his words: “I’ve never seen a band enjoying themselves so much and I found myself having to eat a shed-load of humble pie. It’s still one of the best gigs I’ve been to”.

I faced a similar dilemma for the show last Friday. I love the band; I bought their first album twice, their latest one, and a few in between, and the Labour of Love short film is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen, especially the bit where three Balsall Heath ladies of the night provide backing vocals on Many Rivers To Cross, but my wife wasn’t a fan.

This wouldn’t be a problem if they were on in town and I could go on my own, but for an after-work sprint to picturesque Leamington I needed her and, more importantly, her car. I got round this by suggesting we get a ticket for her mom, who is an even bigger fan than me, as a Mothers’ Day gift, and we made it just in time to collect our tickets and take our place on the balcony at the impressive and packed-out venue.

The band opened with Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and the tone was set. Hit after hit, encompassing all aspects of love, life and politics, received ecstatically by an adoring crowd. Any band would miss as talented a musician as Brian Travers, (presently recovering from brain surgery), but his protege Martin Meredith did a great job of leading a powerful brass section in the great man’s absence, and Brian’s last-minute replacement Ian Thompson, having learned all the songs in three days, performed manfully given such a daunting task.

Duncan Campbell provided flawless vocals with brother Robin doubling up as lead guitarist and master of ceremonies, while a rhythm section of Earl Falconer on bass and drummer Jimmy Brown just ran tings with fire, skill and consummate ease from the back of the stage. Tony Mullings embellished the songs with his classic reggae keyboards and Laurence Parry was a vital component of the band’s signature brass sound. Signing Off, one of the best and most important Brummie albums of all time, was well represented by Food For Thought, King and the aforementioned Tyler, and we were also treated to a few from their most recent opus, For The Many.

You Haven’t Called is a beautiful tale of lovelorn loneliness and a worthy addition to the UB cannon. The Keeper saw Robin tug at the heartstrings, while Joya Landis cover Moonlight Lover had percussionist Norman Hassan leading the way on vocals, ably assisted by Baggariddim vet Gilly G reprising his role on the recorded version from underneath a Peaky Blinders cap.

Norman continued on centre-stage for Broken Man from the new LP, and Johnny Too Bad from Labour of Love, on which he threw some energetic dancehall shapes to the delight of the audience. Earl Falconer first showed off his falsetto vocals on The Heptones’ Baby, then his toasting skills on the anti-Trump rant Bulldozer.

There was also a touching version of Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, and just when you thought they’d run out of massive hits, they hit you with another half-a-dozen from what is, by any measure, an incredible back catalogue. Higher Ground, Sing Our Own Song, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Cherry Oh Baby… the hits just kept on coming until a great singalong version of Red Red Wine makes you think that really must be it for iconic anthems.

By this time my missus was loving it and dancing and singing along with the rest of us (as you can tell from her dodgy camera work in the live video). It seemed like she filmed every other song on her phone and was as enthusiastic as anyone in demanding an encore. The band obliged, returning for One In Ten and Kingston Town, before a pertinent summary of my wife’s new-found feelings towards the band, I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, closed the two-hour party.

There are many great artists and big names who represent the city of Birmingham. Black Sabbath, the Moody Blues, Napalm Death and Panjabi MC have shown our famed diversity and creativity to the world, while Lady Leshurr mentions the place so often she can probably make up 0121 rhymes in her sleep. UB40 are different. They look like a cross section of the population, and their accents are so pronounced Chrissie Hynde needed interpreters to understand them.

Some of them are bluenoses, some claret and blue, they’ve been to Blues parties, they are blue-collar and none of them are afraid of hard-collar. They alternate between being as radical as the Birmingham Political Union and as conservative (with a small ‘c’) as Bournville’s licensing laws. Other acts do a great job of representing the city of Birmingham; UB40 make it flesh.