Live Music + Gig Reviews

The English Beat @ Five Spot, Philadelphia

16 March 2006

Damn, I love live music. Especially a near-legendary singer-songwriter-guitarist backed by a great ska band (sax, drums, bass, keyboard) – that can gets every single person in the crowd pogo-ing by the end of their set. That is the latest tour of ’80s stalwarts The English Beat.

The line-up is more “Dave Wakeling and Friends” now. Saxophonist Saxa doesn’t tour much due to health issues; singer/reggae “toaster” Ranking Roger leads The New Beat, and so on. But Wakeling, the main songwriter, as he was for he and Roger’s mid-’80s offshoot, General Public (other English Beat members formed The Fine Young Cannibals), can still give a stellar, spirited performance.

Opening was the nine-piece Bigger Thomas who did their best to “bring it back to ’79, ’81, ’83,” the heyday of the “two-tone” (i.e. bi-racial), punk/reggae, ska movement from which The English Beat came. With a requisite zoot-suited lead singer, some pork pie hats, and ample horns, they set the tone. They also probably tried too hard, as well, but the crowd was generally appreciative.

Wakeling and company grabbed the crowd right from the beginning with a warm, almost tropical version of the 80s hit I Confess. A welcome surprise was Wakeling’s talents as a vocalist. Having never seen The English Beat before, I never knew exactly how Wakeling and Roger had divided the singing duties. After hearing Wakeling on even the more reggae-heavy numbers at this show, I have to say that now I am not clear at all. He was note-perfect (even on Roger’s Ranking Full Stop) and got into such a groove that I think he might be part Jamaican.

The whole band was sharp all night and I don’t think anyone in the audience would have guessed that Wakeling just celebrated his fiftieth birthday (although they did take a fifteen minute break over their two hours). That may be because Wakeling’s now sober, as he jokingly referenced too all night (“I used to sing Can’t Get Used to Losing You to my liver…”).

They played most everything off of the classic album, I Just Can’t Stop It. The sound is dense, fast punk – almost a totally unique brand of hard rock – that’s always moving to a reggae beat. At times it’s dangerous even, such as with their first encore, the rapid fire Click Click, but they have always had a great pop sensibility, as well, as evidenced on their excellent cover of Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown.

Under the poppier, Motown influenced General Public, Wakeling wrote a song that I have always had on my shortlist of “near perfect” pop songs (see also: The Las There She Goes and Aimee Mann‘s Wise Up), Tenderness. Everyone else in the dancing crowd seemed to feel the same. The rifling drums came to the fore to give the song an adrenaline rush – a nice twist to augment songwriting brilliance. The classic Save it For Later followed shortly thereafter to launch things into full pogo-mode.

It was satisfying too see a high percentage of clearly devoted fans in their twenties, as well. With Wakeling’s signature white Vox Teardrop guitar on its way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a great rock legacy is alive and well. So now where’s the Fine Young Cannibals / General Public / The English Beat tour?

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The English Beat @ Five Spot, Philadelphia