|Also known as the old Ritz, the first venue UB40 ever played in NYC.|
Based on my experience seeing the other version of UB40 at BB King's a few years ago (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of that show here), my expectation was that the crowd for the UB40 featuring Ali, Astro, and Mickey gig at Webster Hall earlier this week would have been filled mostly with forty-something, former-WLIR listeners like myself (that legendary, Long Island-based new wave station gave UB40 an extraordinary amount of support and airplay during the first half of the 1980s, creating a huge and loyal fan-base for them in NYC and its suburbs). And I certainly didn't think the show would be sold out. But when my good friend Adam Monkey and I made our way up to the Grand Ballroom (capacity 1,500), we found ourselves in a sea of people of all ages--shiny twenty year-olds to more weathered fans in their 40s and 50s, who--back in the day--had seen the intact UB40 performing every summer at the outdoor Miller High Life Concerts on Pier 84 on the Hudson River. There were also a fair number of British expats--I ran into a bunch of them at the bar and talked to a few next to me in the audience (at one point, I smelled something burning and was looking all around me for the source; the older Brit in back of me told me that I should expect a lot of smoking at a UB40 concert--I smiled and replied that I was used to that, but thought I had smelled someone's hair on fire).
I was eager to see openers Radio Ridder, who were said to be performing their reggae version of Prince's Purple Rain. Their take on that iconic album, Purple Reggae, is pretty phenomenal (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of Purple Reggae here) and fans apparently have been loving it on this tour--RR Frank Benbini noted from the stage that they'd already sold out of CDs halfway through the tour, as he threw the last few promo copies out to the fans (he also commented that Prince had been pretty pissed-off when he found out about their project and had received many pointed phone calls from his lawyer). Radio Riddler played six songs off the album--"Let's Go Crazy," "Take Me With You," "I Would Die 4 U," "Purple Rain" (videos of these are below), "Darling Nikki," and "When Doves Cry." All were really good to great (their extended rendition of "When Doves Cry" was the highlight of their set--I wished I had videotaped it for you!) and they were enthusiastically received by the audience. I have to admit to being a little disappointed that Radio Riddler didn't surprise us with any special guest singers (their album features appearances by Suggs from Madness, Sinead O'Connor, and others, including Ali Campbell on "Purple Rain"--I'm not sure why he didn't grace the stage for at least part of this song; the place would have exploded) and they used backing, pre-recorded tracks throughout (there was no drummer or bass player). I realize that economic factors are in play for opening acts, but a full band would have given Radio Riddler's set even more power, drive, and urgency. Having said all that, I really enjoyed their set and whole-heartedly recommend catching them if they come your way.
I'll admit to losing UB40's thread after Rat in Mi Kitchen (which is one of my favorite UB40 albums), when they released all of those Labor of Love compilations during the 1990s. They recaptured my attention years later with their excellent Who You Fighting For? (2005) and Twentyfourseven (2008) albums (where they re-engaged with the world and wrote/recorded several sharply political songs). So, it was a bit of a shock when these groups of young women near me (and throughout the venue) started screaming the second Ali Campbell stepped up to the mic. And then they continued to sing along loudly and happily to song after song. That's when it dawned on me that this version of UB40 was going to be focused on delivering their pop cover hits (indeed, a great deal of their set was drawn from 1989's massive-seller, Labor of Love II--and the album they're promoting on this tour is a Greatest Hits Live compilation), instead of their stellar original, and oftentimes sharply political, tracks. But pop songs or not, the Ali/Astro/Mickey iteration of UB40 (expertly backed by a full band and horn section, including a back-up singer who looked like Dr. Ring Ding and a sax player who reminded me of The Beat's Saxa!) packed a considerable punch and put on one hell of a fun show for the grooving, sweaty masses. Their set included fan (and commercial radio) favorites (Al Green's) "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," (The Chi-Lites') "Homely Girl," (The Paragon's) "Wear You to the Ball," (John Holt's version of Shep and the Limelite's) "Stick by Me," (Lord Creator's) "Kingston Town," (Smokey Robinson's) "The Way You Do The Things You Do," (Charles and Eddie's) "Would I Lie To You?," (Eric Donaldson's) "Cherry Oh Baby," and (Boy Friday's) "Version Girl."
They also played several great songs off Ali's 2014 album Silhouette, which he recorded with Astro and Mickey: (a fantastic arrangement of Lionel Ritchie's tribute to Marvin Gaye sung by Diana Ross) "Missing You," (Dennis Brown's super version of The Rays') "Silhouette" (which I though was "cigarette"!), and Astro's "Cyber Bully Boys," which apparently is about the guys in the other UB40. The only time they reached deep into their back-catalogue was for brilliant renditions of two outstanding originals: "Rat in Mi Kitchen" (which I haven't see them do live since, gulp, 1985!) and the ferocious anti-Thatcher indictment, "One in Ten" (videos are below; sorry about the poor sound--it wasn't great in the venue).
An hour-and-a-half into their set, we had to jet--it was a work night and I don't exactly bounce back from a night of drinking beer like I used to--but the band and fans were still going strong (and UB40 hadn't played "Red Red Wine" yet). I really enjoyed their show, but wished that they had dialed back the number of (admittedly popular) covers in favor of more of their original material. Yet, they had given the people what they wanted. It was an evening for reveling in familiar and treasured reggae pop songs--and everyone had a blast. And I have to remind the contrarian in me that there's nothing wrong with that.