Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Duff Review: UB40 Live at B.B. King's in NYC!

Back when I was in high school, in the first half of the 1980s, I used to catch UB40 every summer at the Miller High Life Concerts on the Pier in Manhattan. (This series, produced by Ron Delsener, took place outdoors on Pier 84 on the Hudson River; over the years, I caught acts like Peter Tosh, Midnight Oil, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, the B-52s and more; and since it was a less restrictive time, it was easy to buy beer, since the drinking age was 18--and a tobacco company actually gave out free packs of menthol cigarettes to everyone, which now seems insane.) Out of all the UB40 shows that I caught, some of the highlights included witnessing Chrissie Hynde coming out for her duet with Ali Campbell for "I've Got You Babe" (on the terrific Little Baggariddim tour) and their incredible concert in support of Rat in the Kitchen (one of their best records, both musically and lyrically--go back and listen to tunes like "Looking Down at My Reflection," "Don't Blame Me," and "The Elevator.")

Even though UB40's US tour was in support of the domestic release of Labor of Love IV, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Signing Off (read some great background on the album, including UB40's connection to 2 Tone, from Marco on the Bass). Thankfully, the band did slip in several cuts from Signing Off into their set, but it was clear that the stereotypical art versus commerce conflict was in play here. The vast majority of the enthusiastic audience of thirty- and forty-somethings at the packed NYC show at B.B. King's were there to hear the US radio hits from the 80s and 90s, which were, of course, generally covers of love songs ("Kingston Town," from 1989's Labor of Love II, probably received the biggest response of the night), and not the original--and often bitingly political--UB40 songs that have been huge hits in other parts of the world. (I caught this show with my friend Marc Wasserman of Bigger Thomas/Marco on the Bass, and we both wondered what the set list would be like if we had seen the band on the UK leg of this tour.)

Having said that, UB40 did perform killer (and still very relevant) versions of "Tyler" (a song that decries the injustice and racism of the US judicial system), "King" (a tribute to MLK), "Little By Little" (which calls for the oppressed classes to rise up against the rich), and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" (a Randy Newman cover that is basically about being down and out--and how crappy people are to each other) from Signing Off (their debut in 1980) and "One in Ten" (about how our society ignores the disenfranchised: "A statistical reminder/of a world that doesn't care") from Present Arms (see videos that I taped of several of these songs below). I never imagined that I was going to hear some of these tracks performed live, so this was a real treat for a long-time UB40 fan.

There were other tantalizing hints as to what the show could have been, had the band been freed from their US market pop-reggae constraints--UB40 really cut loose with a thrilling version of "Dance Until the Morning Light" (which Maxi Priest sang with them on Twentyfourseven (2008), which has some really terrific--and political--songs on it, such as "Oh America" and "Middle of the Night") and the mega-charged dancehall tune "Reggae Music" with bassist Earl Falconer on vocals (from 1993's Promises and Lies), which is below.

The set list for this evening included: "Stop That Train," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "One in Ten," "Homely Girl," "Bring It On Home," "Cream Puff," "Cherry Oh Baby," "Tyler," "King," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Little By Little," "Higher Ground," "Boom Shacka Lacka," "Dance Until the Morning Light," "Reggae Music," "Kingston Town," "Red Red Wine," "Baby," "Can't Help Falling in Love,""Please Don't Make Me Cry," "Easy Snappin'," and "The Way You Do The Things You Do."

I have to admit to being disappointed that they didn't play anything off their excellent Who You Fighting For? album (2005)--particularly since that title cut was so dead-on in its criticism of America's unnecessary (and bloody and expensive and sold based on outright lies) invasion of Iraq ("Sell the arms/suppress the truth/Create the fear/invent the proof/Wave the flag/Don't tell the youth/who they are fighting for"). But, I probably should have gotten my act together back in 2006 and seen the band when they toured in support of that record...

While ex-lead singer Ali Campbell (who split with the band in 2008) was missed, his brother Duncan did an extraordinary job--he's clearly yet another gifted performer in the family--and the uncanny resemblance of his singing voice to his brother Ali's certainly helps seal the deal.

All in all, UB40 were in top form, gave the people what they wanted, and sent everyone home satisfied, which isn't such an easy thing to do thirty years on...

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Note: this posting has been corrected. As Luci Lockit on the UB40 site fan forum was kind enough to point out, UB40's US tour was in support of the American release of Labor of Love IV (not the 30th Anniversary of Signing Off, as I had originally stated)--and that the UK tour that immediately follows is in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of Signing Off, where they will perform the album in its entirety (and a deluxe edition of that album is being issued in the UK, too). Apologies to everyone for my confusion!


Anonymous said...

What a great article - the video clips sound fantastic.

I know that for the UK dates UB40 will play two set on each night of the tour. The first set will be the Signing Off album played in its entirety, followed by a second set full of the world-wide hits that followed.

EMI in the UK are also issuing a collector edition of Signing Off, complete with a whole disc of extras, radio sessions and 12"s

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for your comments, Anon! Wish I could be in the UK for that leg of the tour. Enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your candid review. I followed the link over from the fan bulletin board.

LOL- on the cigarettes being handed out- wow! has the world changed since then eh?

It was a certainly a treat to hear some of the songs live on this tour. You're spot on with WYFF, that was a wicked CD and I was fortunate to catch it live when they came to Canada in 2006 and 2008. Hopefully the next gig won't be in 2012 as they just did the 2010 here in Windsor.

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your kind words about the UB40 review.

It IS kind of horrifying that the cigs were passed out to anyone at the shows...but the times were really different then. (I miss them!)

Can't wait to catch UB40 again when they come to the states. We were particularly lucky here in NYC to see them in such a small venue (around 1,000 capacity).

Take care,


Lee said...

Read my detailed review of Signing Off here: http://realgonerocks.blogspot.com/2010/10/ub40-signing-off.html

Steve from Moon said...

Real Gone:

That was a terrific and insightful review of "Signing Off." Thanks for pointing it out.