Hyper-vigilant, fussy security, which is understandable post-Manchester, and a Singaporean-like paen of over priced consumption opportunities hemming in the building, the Wembley Arena experience can feel like the apogee of the modern cycle of micro management and empty consumerism. However UB40, who’ve ploughed very commercial tangents themselves amongst their fifty chart breaking singles, still retain some grit and homespun timbre. Forty three years since Chrissie Hynde spotted them in a Birmingham pub and asked them to support The Pretenders, the band is on its postponed 2021 tour, with its first non-Campbell frontman, Matt Doyle, formerly of Kioko, at the helm.
UB40’s odyssey over the decades has been a picaresque one, featuring infighting, litigation, jail term and tragedy. Not to mention the acrimonious parallel existence of the group under the same name after original singer, Ali Campbell, left in 2008. An audience member shouts Campbell’s name when Doyle is introduced, and is acidly rebuked by remaining brother Robin. “Shut up mate. He left fifteen years ago. You too can always go home. In fact, I’m here to help you.” The voice of Doyle, who perches on a lighting box, like David Caspar Friedrich’s The Wanderer, bears an uncanny resemblance to the original vocalist and he is a seamless fit for the constantly mutating line up.
Further collaborators from 2021’s Bigga Biggaridium album, Pablo Rider and Leno Banton, also mosey on stage to add some extra scorch to the toasting during a playlist which, predictably, meshes old and new. ‘Champion’, commissioned for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, is there and mid-set the Bigga album gets a look in with the excellent ‘Brokewn Man’ (sic) and Matt Doyle’s own thoroughly danceable composition You Don’t Call Anymore.
UB40 have lost none of the political acerbity they were noted for in their early days. I’m Alright Jack is an open diatribe against the ruling Tories. Groovin’ and Bring Me Your Cup are in the set by audience demand, but feel the weakest contributions of the night, as does Reggae Music, sung by bassist Earl Falconer. Johnny Too Bad features percussionist Norman Hassan on vocals, plus a comic blast of his Dad dancing which sends the crowd ecstatic. Red Red Wine is dedicated to the “soldiers lost this year, like Terry Hall” and second of the encores, Kingston Town, to recently deceased saxophonist Brian Travers. There are surprising omissions from Present Arms, such as Don’t Let it Pass You By and One In Ten, but Signing Off gets a seat at the table with the melancholia of Tyler/King and Food For Thought hits the heights you’d expect it to, following an ingenious intro.
The tempo of reggae supposedly replicates the human heartbeat with its offbeat percussion and the subterranean rumble of its basslines. UB40’s songs are faithfully restored in the voluminous hangar of the Arena with all their velvet smoothness; the skank, the one drop, as tight as ever.
Words by Adrian Cross