Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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UB40: Folk fans feel the benefit

Brian Travers - UB40
Brian Travers - UB40 UB40 Duncan Campbell - UB40 Robin Campbell UB40 James 'Jimmy' Brown UB40 James 'Jimmy' Brown UB40 Astro UB40 Astro UB40 Robin Campbell UB40

I am a Cropredy virgin. In the 32-year history of the world’s most famous folk festival - Fairport’s Cropredy Convention near Banbury - this was my first time. Good year to come though. I got to witness history……a reggae band headliner. Not just any old reggae band either…. I was intrigued when I heard that the mighty UB40 were topping the bill on the first night. Reggae at a folk festival. Would it work?

The scene is a very friendly and relaxed, family orientated event. Set in a natural, sloped amphitheatre in a huge field in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside. The Godfather’s of folk music, Fairport Convention, hosting the festival since its birth three decades ago in someone’s back garden.

Here you get the stars mingling with punters in the real ale bar over three days. Perfect sound from the PA. Low key, professional organisation. Media from around the world covering the event. BBC4 and Sky Arts TV crews capturing footage the day I was there. Whispering Bob Harris doing his thing to-camera. Lovely guy.

The kind of place where you never know who you are going to bump into. Backstage on day one I chatted to blues legend Seasick Steve, rock and roll icon Joe Brown. US band Hayseed Dixie. Led Zep’s bassist John Paul Jones was guesting the next day, and Robert Plant was rumoured to be turning up - as he has in previous years.

Birmingham reggae stars UB40 have a big link to the festival. Fairport’s bassist Dave Pegg played in Ian Campbell’s folk group in the 60s, Father of Ali, Robin and Duncan. “Peggy” invited UB40 to play at the festival, but each time they were already committed elsewhere. Until this year. Dave told me he was so glad they could come, as they owed him a few pints! “When they were lads, I gave them a Red Dawes Emblem racing bike with 15 gears, so they owe me a beer or two. I remember going on holiday to Ross on Wye with Ian and the lads, me and my kids. I am incredibly pleased they are here, as they are a great group and lovely lads. Their manager Dave used to be a roadie for Fairport.” Dave Pegg even has the claim to fame that he played table football with Bob Marley and got soundly beaten every game. Reggae star Jimmy Cliff stayed at his parent’s council house in Acocks Green, Birmingham for three weeks, on his first ever UK tour! “Can you get a photo of me with the two Campbell boys after the show,” asks Dave? I oblige.

Before the show, I chat with the band’s sax player, songwriter and founder member Brian Travers. Sat in dressing room number 1, one of several “Portacabins” the band have been allocated. He talks me through the band’s history, formed in Birmingham in 1978. Their first single went to number four in the UK chart. “King/Food For Thought.” Debut album “Signing Off” in 1980, got to number two in the UK and spent 71 weeks in the chart. Now Platinum. They re-released the album as a double CD and DVD set for its 30th anniversary last year.

The band were discovered by Chrissie Hynde, who invited them to tour with The Pretenders when she spotted them playing in a pub. They went on to have two US Billboard number ones with “Red Red Wine” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” among five top ten hits there. They still tour the US and in 2008, after former singer Ali Campbell departed, they played the Hollywood bowl for the first time. In 2009 and 2010 they toured the States coast to coast. Still good box office.

Young Brian saved to buy his first sax when he was an electrical apprentice. He was a founder member of the band alongside Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer and Ali Campbell. Brian and Ali toured Birmingham, sticking up posters before most of them could even play a note. Brian reveals that when the band first started and only had a few songs, in the late 70s, they recorded at Dave Pegg’s studio - in the very village we are walking distance from now. “Dave is an incredible musician and has always been very supportive of us. Tried for a few years to play here, but we were always away. It is great to finally get to do it. It must be one of the few festivals in the world UB40 have never played. We have headlined Glastonbury, Montreux Jazz Festival. All over the world, but not here. It is a beautiful festival with a mature audience who love music, all sorts of music. We are going to have a real party out there. With all the hits they know. It is a real privilege for us to be here.”

So is there any issue over a folk crowd accepting reggae music? “Not at all. It is all blues and folk anyway. Without the blues we got nothing. No reggae. No soul. It is in another sense, all folk music too. What we play wasn’t very exotic in Balsall Heath in central Birmingham in the 70s. It was folk music. Reggae music was the folk music. The songs all tell a story.”

The band had a consistent line up from the start, 1978 to 2008. Then in January 2008 singer Ali Campbell left and soon after, keyboard man Mickey Virtue followed. Maxi Priest shared vocals with new boy Duncan Campbell for one tour, and then the third Campbell brother took over and has been at the front ever since. There’s been much said about the shock departure of Ali. By him, not by the band. He has seemingly been quite vitriolic about his former colleagues, which includes his siblings Robin and Duncan.

Now, when I was a trainee reporter many moons ago, I was told that the two main ingredients of a good tabloid story were “kissing and fighting.” i.e. sex and conflict. A damn good row. It sells ‘papers. My tape running, Brian pulls no punches in the story behind the split and what has been said since. I am salivating. It’s on tape. Hard-hitting stuff. This old hack seizing on his words like a pit bull on a rabbit. Then I see the band do their thing on stage and blow away around 15,000 people. I spend afternoon and evening with the guys backstage, and even on stage. I get to see first hand how close they all are. There may only be two actual brothers in the band, but there may as well be 10. Musically they are perfect. Duncan is a classy, relaxed front man with his own personality and vocal style, but a similar tone as his brother.

I begin to mull over my angle for this feature. The row and the band’s response in full Technicolor is obvious. But is it? I shoot pix of the band on stage, and as the crowd are going bonkers for more and the band are soaked in sweat, big grins on their boat race, walking off stage to the dressing rooms, I tell Brian and the boys I have got it…..

My mind wanders to football. My team. Sir Alex Ferguson has told Beckham, Cantona and other superstar players, that no one person is ever bigger than the club or the team. Ever. That was it. It fits here. UB40 is the team and a star player left, but was replaced with someone of equal talent and individual style. So the club marches on to further victory.

As hard as it is for me to say this; I am not actually going to use one single word of Brian’s comments about their former singer and the background to the split. About the guy he went to school with. It will just be pouring paraffin on to the flames and detract from the fact that UB40 are globally famous, brilliant at what they do, unique. They made reggae commercial and cool. For black, white, young and not so young. They headline globally. UB4O is a brand. They have three decades of history sure, but they retain credibility and relevance to today. Real musicians playing real music to real people. I have a saying on my office wall: “Illuminate the positive and eliminate the negative.” So these guys focus on the future, the positive. My own message to Ali, who I have never met and do not know, would be….. no matter what has happened; blood is always thicker than water. Family are more important than anything. Always.

So. Ali does his thing. They do theirs. Move on. And move on they are……………… I can tell you dear B&S readers, that anyone who has criticised UB40 for not doing anything original since Ali packed his bags, will soon be eating their words. The band have signed a major label deal. They are part way through a new album, due for release next year. I heard some of it in the dressing room at Cropredy. It is stunning. Different, but not! One track I heard is a dead cert hit. US included. If it isn’t, I’ll bare my bottom in Biggleswade High Street (sorry Biggleswade!) Seven or eight originals and some well known and forgotten classics.

This all sounds cryptic. Deliberately. They have signed a confidentiality agreement with the label and cannot talk about it. So I am not saying which label it is or any more than I have here. But I am very excited at what I heard, as it is new, fresh, exciting, infectious, classy and great production. Hugely commercial, but very credible. They have plans to feature some mega guests on the CD. It will please their fans and open new doors. I can see this getting “A” rotation playlist on Radio 2. Watch out for the news when they reveal what they are up to.

So what can I tell you? Well, I heard one of the coolest things of my life while talking to Brian. I asked him what it felt like to be in a band that have sold 70 million records, so says Wikipedia. His reply was superb. He said, and I quote: “It is actually nearer 100 million, Simon.” Don’t you just love that? Best correction I have ever heard. And in his thick Brummie accent it sounded even cooler. Imagine selling 100 million records! Add up the total sales of perhaps the top 20 chart acts of today and you probably will not get a quarter of that figure! And with sales and success like that, I must admit I did expect a bunch of arrogant guys being difficult to work with. Wrong again, Redley. Lovely guys with no ego and seemingly, the same level of enthusiasm for their show as they had 30 years ago.

The Veuve Cliquot, red, red, red wine (see what I did then?), beer and food are laid on in their dressing rooms, sure. They get a big Winnabego for a production office. A nice tour bus to ferry them here. VIP treatment yes. But they have earned it. Over 50 tracks in the top twenty UK charts. Five hits in the Billboard charts in the US. A Grammy nomination in 2006 for, “Who You Fighting For.”

Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown comes into the dressing room and laughs out loud. “This is great. Blues and soul interviewing a reggae band at a folk festival.” He says he thinks it may be a bit of a culture shock for the audience, as in the few hours we have been there, he has not heard any bass on stage. “When our bass starts, they’ll be rattling,” he laughs. In fact, there are no monitor cabs on stage for UB40, they use in-ear monitors. So it is pretty quiet on stage. They do have auto cues for the lyrics, just in case of a senior moment!

The band’s dresser and wardrobe mistress Caroline, starts to do her stuff. Tour manager Paul Hunter hurries me up so the guys can get ready for 9.30pm show-time. I take the hint.

One thing; I cannot compare the band to the days of Ali at the front. I never saw them before. In 1979 I was sent to a Brum ballroom to shoot pix for a music ‘paper, but the place was chained up after losing their license, so the gig was off. A few years later they were huge and headlined Bingley Hall, Stafford. Car broke down on the way, and I didn’t get there. 3rd time lucky then.

There is a kind of charged electric atmosphere, from band, crew and crowd. This could be something really special. Well……It was.

The boys took to the stage to a football stadium roar. Robin Campbell on guitar and vocals. Duncan Campbell on lead vocals.James ‘Jimmy’ Brown on drums. Norman Hassan on percussion, trombone and vocals. Brian Travers on sax - providing that distinctive sound that UB40 are famous for. Earl Falconer on bass and vocals. The inimitable Astro on trumpet and vocals. Those guys all founder members. Then the live additions of Martin Meredith on sax, Laurence Parry on trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and Tony Mullings on keyboards.

Duncan looks relaxed and at ease. He has a charisma and class that make you feel he’s always been there. Tonight, he is the man. After his first few bars, no one would be thinking about absent friends, that’s for sure. He gets some vocal support when Astro, Norman and Earl take turns in coming to the front of the stage to sing lead or harmonies. Brother Robin chipping in too. Some fine rapping from Earl.

The audience were up for it big-time, and sang along to almost every song. The band were chilled and smiling through the whole show. 23 songs. Hit after hit after hit. Like a mix tape of party songs. Lovely stuff. I realised something as I looked out at a sea of happy faces. Folk. Country. Rock. Blues. Whatever. You do not need to like reggae. You just need to like music. Good music. Great music. A great band.

I couldn’t see one person not digging it. If there were any, they’d be deaf or dead. From the first song “Here I Am Come And Take Me,” to the sing-a-long finale of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” – which I defy anyone not to mouth the words to when they hear it - the boys had the crowd in the palms of their hands. With ease. “Homely Girl.” “Cherry Oh Baby.” Great versions of “Cream Puff” and “Boom Shacka Lacka.” Last three songs before the encore; “Food For Thought,” “Rat In Mi Kitchen” and the timeless “Red Red Wine.” The band leave the stage to deafening applause and shouts for more. They get it. A quartet of great songs, with the best until last, “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” A storming four-song encore. Like a last night at the folk proms with a reggae band. Genius booking policy. Bet there were a few hoarse voices and sore feet next day.

I kept thinking…..this band had come such a long way since their first gig at the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham on 9th February 1979 at a friend’s birthday party! But this was also a heck of a party tonight, too.

It is true. Reggae music unites communities. It is from the streets and the ghetto. It is classless and does not distinguish between race or colour. Or folk fans! UB40’s catalogue, like the brilliant: “One In Ten,” third song in the set tonight - the perfect soundtrack to today’s broken Britain and civil unrest. With two point five million jobless. A song they wrote and released over 30 years ago, but summing up today’s discontent and desperation of the people. Brilliant lyrical content: “A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care.” As relevant in 2011, as it was in the late 70s and 80s.

Memo to the PM, David Cameron. Can I suggest you offer UB40 on the NHS? That’s a benefit we would all sign up for.

Pictures: Simon Redley

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