UB40 are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first (and best) album Signing Off with the release of a new deluxe edition as well as performing the whole of the original version live.
It’s easy to forget now, but before the Brummie band went pop with their soft-centred, international best-selling album of covers Labour of Love in 1983, they were a credible reggae band known for their sharp political lyrics and strong anti-racist stance. The band’s name, of course, refers to the unemployment benefit form of the time, reproduced in all its jaundiced yellowness as a classic album cover, while the title of their debut indicates their anti-establishment credentials.
Although they did produce a couple of decent albums later in the 80s, Red Red Wine and many other hugely popular but equally saccharine songs spelt the end of any authentic musical voice, selling out in more ways than one. UB40 may not have had the same number of hit records in the last ten years but the now fiftysomethings still have a big live following, with their largely middle-aged fans out in force at the Troxy.
The band plays two hour-long sets, starting with Signing Off. It is hair-raising to hear the throbbing intro to Tyler leading into its haunting melodies and hypnotic grooves, backing an angry indictment of the racially divided US justice system. King is a moving tribute to Martin Luther King, while Burden of Shame remains a stinging attack on British colonialism and Food for Thought still hits home about the plight of famine victims in developing countries. But what is most striking is the rich texture of the music, shown also in the instrumental tracks, which creates interesting layers above the infectious beat.
After a short interval, UB40 return to play a second set of mainly later pop tunes, as the mood turns increasingly mellow, and the singalongs and slow arm swaying take over. Tracks like Sing Our Own Song, Here I Am (Come And Take Me), Cherry Oh Baby and the inevitable Red Red Wine are greeted enthusiastically by the audience looking for easy-going entertainment and ready to dance. And after everyone has joined in the encore I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, the band are cheered off stage.
UB40 do know how to put on a good show. The eight regular band members are joined by two more, with several playing more than one instrument. Amazingly, the same line-up was maintained for 30 years until 2008, when lead singer Ali Campbell went solo. As replacement, his older brother Duncan sings in a very similar style, though not as soulfully, while third brother guitarist Robin introduces the songs. Other members of the band get the chance to sing, including toaster Astro, but as always it is Brian Travers who steals the show with his vibrantly throaty sax playing, which sounds just as appealing as when the band were at its peak 30 years ago