UB40 plays in Aspen on Thursday
ASPEN The neighborhood in the English city of Birmingham where Robin Campbell grew up was heavy with all kinds of immigrants: Irish, Scots, Jamaicans, Africans and others. The predominant sound, though, which Campbell heard at so-called blues parties, came from the Jamaican contingent.I loved the Jamaican pop music, said Campbell from Birmingham, where he still lives.Notice what he did not say that he loved reggae music. Campbell is old enough, at 53, to have fallen in love with Jamaican music before the Caribbean island became synonymous with reggae. Campbell says his favorite, and most influential period was 1966-68, when Bob Marley was still playing the ska and rock-steady styles, and reggae had not become part of the musical vocabulary. (The word wasnt even yet part of the title of the Toots Hibbert song, Do the Reggay, which gave the genre its name; Hibbert released the song in 1968.)My favorite era is the rock-steady era, 1966-68, that brief period when ska turned into reggae, said Campbell, who picked up guitar and co-founded the British band UB40. That was the high point for me, and I still have nostalgia for it.You couldnt help but hear it. It was everywhere. You didnt hear it in the nightclubs; you heard it in the streets, from Friday till Monday morning, on these enormous homemade speakers, at these homemade clubs, these blues parties.Campbell explains that this form of Jamaican music largely was derived from American R&B; often, the songs themselves were American hits, re-recorded to a different rhythm by Jamaican singers. They were slowed down; the bass line was accented and it became reggae, he said. I thought it was the sexiest music Id ever heard. It just vibrated through you, and changed my whole approach to music.Notice some other things that Campbell did not say. He did not say the music was political or spiritual, but sexy. He did not say that hearing Jamaican sounds did not alter his philosophy toward life, but changed his approach to music. Which goes a long way toward explaining the sound of UB40, the band that Campbell formed with seven Birmingham mates including his brother, lead singer Ali in 1979. UB40s sound, for three decades, has been radio-friendly in the extreme, featuring warm, romantic vocals and easy, swaying beats.Largely absent, or at least buried under the pop surface, is the mysticism of Bunny Wailer, the repetitious grooves of Burning Spear, the firebrand politics of Peter Tosh. Those are hallmarks of reggae, not of pre-reggae Jamaican music. UB40s biggest hits have been covers of pop love songs: Neil Diamonds Red Red Wine, recorded for their massively successful 1983 covers album, Labour of Love; Elvis Presleys (I Cant Help) Falling In Love With You, featured on the soundtrack to the 1993 movie, Silver.Marleys biggest track was No Woman, No Cry, no doubt. And Could You Be Loved, notes Campbell, who appears with UB40 at Belly Up on Thursday, Aug. 14. But he was wrapped up in the mysticism, Rastafarianism. Thats the image he portrayed. The Wailers sounded like a r&b group when I first heard them in the 60s. They were singing Blue Suede Shoes, if you can believe that.So Campbell mostly missed the lyrical themes that were to become associated with reggae: freedom for the oppressed, a rebuke of materialism, and the back-to-Africa movement. (Campbell himself is white, while the membership of UB40 is racially mixed.)Thats what happened in the 70s, with the ascendance of Marley, he said, and reggae was all about being a Rasta. Before that, it was not all about the political stance. Reggae for me was like every other sort of music.But on some level, Campbell and his mates, coming out of a multiracial slum, had a deep sympathy not just with reggaes sounds, but its messages as well. The name UB40 is a reference to the governments form for claiming unemployment payments: Unemployment Benefits, Form 40. Their first single was backed with the song Food For Thought: About the hypocrisy of stuffing your face when other people are going hungry, said Campbell.UB40 didnt leave its social conscience in the dust as it was establishing itself as a pop-reggae band. Campbell says that the vast majority of the bands original songs address themes of social substance, and that is as true of their newest material as it is of their early work. He adds that TwentyFourSeven, released in June, may be the most issue-oriented of their 20 or so studio albums. He points to such tunes as Tyler, about Gary Tyler, a black Louisianian who has been on death row since the age of 17, and whom Campbell believes was framed; Oh America, which he says is not an attack on American people, but an attack on the Bush administration, the affairs in the Middle East; and End of War, inspired by the 1961 speech John F. Kennedy gave to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he said, Man will put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.We dont deal with the mysticism stuff, said Campbell. We say what we say plainly and clearly, and we never back away from what we believe. I really dont think its down to the musical genre. We write what were passionate about. We say what we want to say.And nothing much has changed. Were still writing about the same stuff.The material may not have changed, but the membership has. For some 30 years, UB40 comprised the same eight members. Earlier this year, after the recording of TwentyFourSeven, Ali Campbell left, followed soon after by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. Robin Campbell, who has shared lead vocals, says only that his brother, three years his junior, has gone his own way, pursuing his solo career.Alis replacement? Duncan Campbell, who falls in between his two brothers, age-wise. Robin notes that Duncans voice is remarkably similar to Alis, so the music has not changed very much.What has changed is Duncans life, and career. He had been a bit-part TV actor, a croupier, and the manager of a bar and of a snooker hall. He even recorded an album with Ali 15 years ago. But he had never been a member of the touring band.We were forced to reappraise ourselves, said Robin, noting that their father, Ian, had been a successful folk musician. When Ali left, he thought wed just fold; hed take the fan base and go away. But were so enthusiastic again. Were itching to get on the road.Robin adds that Duncan is not merely keeping the seat warm for the well-known English reggae singer Maxi Priest. Yes, Priest appears as a guest on TwentyFourSeven among the songs he contributes to is Marleys I Shot the Sheriff and he appears as a special guest on the current tour, doing an opening act and singing a few tunes with UB40. Hes just a guest singer, and a friend of ours, said Campbell. At the moment.Ali Campbell and Virtue leave behind an impressive chunk of history. Their uprising began when singer Chrissie Hynde heard them at a pub, and invited UB40 to open for the Pretenders. The bands debut album, Signing Off, was a hit, and their 1983 album, Labour of Love which featured covers of reggae tunes Cherry Oh Baby and Many Rivers to Cross as well as Red Red Wine, and which spawned two more volumes of Labour of Love made them a sensation.The response in the U.S., however, was muted. Or, at least, delayed. In 1987, a radio DJ in Phoenix played Red Red Wine accidentally, as a golden oldie. It became a hit, and established the bands popularity here.But UB40s identity remains somewhat cloudy. Listen close enough to their words, and you hear them as idealistic, committed to justice. Turn off your mind, and they become a pop band, set to a reggae rhythm.If what you know is our commercial singles, you would think that, said Campbell. The hits tend to be love songs.
Amazingly enough, UB40 and Maxi Priest arent the only British reggae acts coming to Belly Up this week. On Friday, the night after UB40s show, Pato Banton, also from Birmingham, U.K., leads his Mystic Roots Band to the club for a night of positive vibrations.Looking around the musical map, there are acts coming in to Belly Up from Jamaica (The Mighty Diamonds, Aug. 21); London (well, sort of U.S.-based tribute band the Machine covers the London-born Pink Floyd on Aug. 23); Scotland (singer-songwriter KT Tunstall in her Aspen debut on Aug. 25).But for regionally flavored shows, none can top, or even come close to, the one set for Aug. 27 soooo conveniently timed for the night before Jazz Aspen Snowmass kicks off its Labor Day Festival, which expands to five days this year to accommodate two nights by Widespread Panic (the pride of Athens, Ga.). On that night, a krewe of Louisianas finest march to Aspen fresh off appearances at the Democratic National Convention in Denver for a gig benefiting the groups Friends of New Orleans and the Tipitinas Foundation, who assist with New Orleans recovery from Hurricane Katrina.Headlining the show are the Voices of the Wetlands All Stars, a group that was assembled and began preaching about the precarious state of the Gulf Coast region several years before Katrina devastated the area. Apart from that bit of foresight, the All Stars are capable of some musical magic. The band is headed by bluesman Tab Benoit, and features bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters; Cyril Neville, singer-percussionist-social firebrand of the Neville Brothers; drummer Johnny Vidacovich; singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, a Swedish native who found home when he found New Orleans; Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Wild Magnolias; Cajun fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux; and harmonica player Jumpin Johnny Sansone.How you gonna fit all those players onstage, you ask? What if I told you we aint even started? The show also features a set by three members of the original Meters: guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, as well as Porter. The only one missing is Art Neville, the keyboardist so sitting in will be JoJo Herman, of Widespread Panic. Adding a little punch to the quartet will be singer-guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington and Henry Butler, adding another dimension in keyboards.Still not done. Special guests for the show are the New Orleans Brass Allstars, a top-shelf team of saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and trumpeter James Andrews. And what would a New Orleans show be without a second-line parade? So count in the Soul Rebels Brass Band and the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians. Oh yeah, the opening act is singers Lauren Barrett and Mary McBride.For those who dont like New Orleans music, theres a touch of local flavor from Woody Creeker John Oates, half of the hit duo of Hall & Oates.Tickets are $200, but that should go down easy in light of two things: One, the money goes to a good cause; and two, its an open bar.