Photo of UB40 above by idp
O2 Academy, Leeds
3rd April 2014
My previous encounters with UB40 having been at arenas where, although a few brave souls did stand up to boogy gingerly on the vertiginous terraces, the atmosphere has been pretty sedate, I was interested in finding out how the band would look and sound in a proper sweaty rock venue like the Academy.
There have been a few changes in the UB40 line up since I saw them last. Lead singer Ali Campbell jumped ship in 2008 and was replaced with his brother Duncan (which probably caused some awkward moments at Christmas, at least in our house we only slept with each other’s wives) and a few years later Mickey Virtue and Astro did likewise. The three exiles now perform as UB40 ReUnited. There has also been a lurch into country music territory which appears to have precipitated the later two of the departures and provoked the indifference of, among others, Louder Than War’s Ian Critchley.
Whatever the changes they don’t seem to have damaged the band’s standing with their fanbase and although they aren’t filling arenas, an hour and a half before the show the Academy is already rammed full, the heat is extraordinary and there’s a real party atmosphere. The DJ is playing 1980s hits and everyone in the place is dancing and singing along. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen before. Maybe it does, all the time and I just don’t go to see enough pop bands. They don’t do it at Fall gigs. They don’t get dressed up as smart either – this is clearly an ideal date gig. A lot of selfies with the band in the background are taken during the course of the night.
“We’re going to play you some very old songs tonight,” Robin Campbell announces early on but after the opening sequence of Present Arms, Watchdogs and Sweet Cherrie it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be a straightforward greatest hits show. There’s also enough new material on the set list to ensure that it isn’t simply a nostalgia fest and at least half the audience tonight are too young to remember everything from the first time around. In fact many of the best moments from the show come when the band is performing their newer songs to which this line up can claim title.
The band are in fine form, taking turns to come to front of the stage for their moment in the spotlight, the horn section swaying in time like the front row of a 40s big band, the grooves solid and just a little bit dirtier than in their arena shows – the intention here is clearly to get people moving and the crowd are happy to oblige. If there are a few hits missing they don’t seem to mind. Sherry Oh Baby gets everybody’s arms waving and then it’s time for a sequence from the new album.
These songs sound less country than they do on record and they fit right in with the rest of the set. Midnight Rider is a particular highlight, with an irresistibly bright groove and embellished with a great sax break. Other high spots from the same album are Springsteen favourite How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live complete with booming drum like a temperance street band and a stately version of Johnny Nash’s Cream Puff.
The last third of the set is given over to crowd pleasers, kicking off with Homely Girl, 1 In 10, Red Red Wine, and Falling in Love With You and the encore brings Kingston Town (how many songs are there that can send an audience hysterical with just a single note from an electric clarinet?). Whether UB40 are still the band they were with their original line up is a question I shall leave to others more knowledgable than I am but they certainly still put on a great show and they know how to get people dancing which is what they’re all about.