|UB40 in action at Sony Hall|
This was my first time at Sony Hall, an upscale supper club-type ballroom in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, just off Times Square. Oddly, given the violent times we live in, my friends and I just walked right in and they scanned our tickets--no one patted us down at the door, made us empty our pockets and go through a metal detector, or looked in my friend's bulging backpack (I'd been to two other concerts in the previous week at Webster Hall and Central Park SummerStage, and was as thoroughly screened as if I was boarding an airplane). Similarly, the close to sold-out UB40 crowd wasn't quite what I had expected (and gave off a weird energy), comprised much more of corporate/finance-y and ex-frat boy types than the WLIR/new wave and reggae fans that I'd see at their concerts back in the day (I didn't recognize my GenX peers like I had at the B-52s/OMD/Berlin show I caught a few days ago in Central Park). And this essentially illustrates UB40's art-versus-commerce tension that's been a sticky component of their career and relationship with their fan base (it's particularly pronounced here in America), ever since the extraordinary success of their Labor of Love album in 1983. (Early in the show, there was some obnoxious guy yelling at Robin Campbell to play "Red Red Wine"; Robin replied that they were obviously going to play it toward end of night--and when they did, hundreds of hands holding cell phones shot up in the audience to record the song.)
Like many of their splintered 2 Tone-era peers, there are, of course, two versions of UB40 roaming the planet. This iteration--with original members Robin Campbell (co-vocals/guitar), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass/keyboards/vocals), and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals), augmented by long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards); original saxophonist Brian Travers recently was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment, so missed this tour--is the less poppy one, but they still split their set pretty evenly between their terrific original songs and their many hit (and bill-paying) pop/reggae covers. As this was their 40th anniversary tour (I had just been to The Selecter's 40th anniversary show earlier this month--great things were going on in 1979, right?), UB40 performed songs from key early albums (all of them notably political in nature: "Tyler" and "King" from their 1980 debut Signing Off; and the brilliant anti-apartheid track "Sing Our Own Song" from 1986's Rat in the Kitchen), as well as several new songs ("The Keeper," "Broken Man," Midnight Lover," "You Haven't Called," and "All We Do Is Cry") from their superb For the Many album (which we reviewed back in April), and a healthy number of their famous covers (including "Cherry Oh Baby," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Baby," "Midnight Rider," "Kingston Town, "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love with You"--and for some reason I was very pleasantly surprised to hear The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad").
UB40 served up a thoroughly enjoyable, well-honed performance that gave the people exactly what they wanted (at the expense of offering thrills of the unexpected). What I'd give to see them put aside their more commercial considerations and play a show solely featuring their own ace material (with tracks like "One in Ten," "Don't Let It Pass You By," "If It Happens Again," "Rat in the Kitchen," "Looking Down at My Reflection," "Don't Blame Me," "Who You Fighting For?," "Dance Until the Morning Light," "Gravy Train," "Bulldozer," "I'm Alright Jack")--the economics of it all be damned! I want to be wowed again.
+ + + +