Ah springtime, warmer days and an end to soggy weather are just around the corner. It is a time when the thoughts of many city dwellers begin to turn to the coming of summer and, of course, reggae shows. The House of Blues was quick to oblige, serving up an early treat in relative newcomer Elan and veteran act UB40. Warming it up was Elan, an artist who seems to have his feet firmly planted in both reggaeâ€™s past and future. After a three-year stint as singer for The Wailers (yes, those Wailers) Elan has the stage presence of a longtime performer though he was here supporting his first solo record. The first thing one notices when listening to Elan is the voice, which bears a startling resemblance to Bob Marley. Legend has it Wailers bandleader Aston Barrett heard a demo of Elanâ€™s and convinced him to take on vocal duties for the group, putting Elanâ€™s own solo career on hold while he toured with the legendary reggae outfit once fronted by Marley himself. A spot as lead singer for this venerated group seems like a pretty good training ground for this emerging new voice in reggae music.
Steeped in the classic island rhythms of Jamaicaâ€™s past Elanâ€™s music moves confidently into reggaeâ€™s future, deftly mixing in dub, ska, and dancehall styles with flavors of R&B, New Wave and funk grooves. Songs like â€œGirl,â€ â€œTogether As Oneâ€ and â€œI Wanna Yellâ€ married spiritual and political messages to irresistible melodies and quickly won over the audience, making Elan an inspired choice to open for UB40, a reggae group with their own storied past.
When UB40 formed back in 1978 with the sole purpose of making reggae popular one couldnâ€™t even hear this kind of music on the radio (unless you count Clapton covering â€œI Shot The Sheriffâ€). Itâ€™s more than a quarter-century later and the band has amassed an enormous fan base worldwide as well as plenty of hits.
They kicked things off with their 1980 debut single “King/Food For Thought,” before moving easily into the anti-war message of â€œWho You Fighting For,â€ the title track from their latest album. Itâ€™s no surprise to find that the band that railed against the conservative administration of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher still concerns itself with themes of social justice.
Though their new songs may be as exciting and socially relevant as ever, UB40 will always be endeared to American fans for their reggae-fied covers of â€™60s and â€˜70s pop and soul tunes as well as their covers of Jamaican classics from their Labour of Love recordings.
Although they havenâ€™t had a hit in this country since 1993 the appeal of UB40â€™s music was evidenced by the diverse crowd in attendance. College girls danced shoulder to shoulder with suit-and-tie businessmen and dreadlocked reggae fans clad solely in the red, yellow and green of the Rastafarian flag. The contact highs are inevitable at a reggae show and soon the pungent herb was wafting through the capacity crowd.
It may have been seven long years since a proper U.S. tour but UB40 wasted little time reminding the audience what they loved about the band back in the day. working through crowd pleasers like â€œRed, Red Wine,â€ â€œHere I Am Baby,â€ â€œThe Way You Do The Things You Doâ€ and â€œCanâ€™t Help Falling In Love With Youâ€ with the same enthusiasm they had fifteen and twenty years ago.
Conspiciously absent (in person anyway) was Astro, the groups beloved toaster and sometimes trumpeter. Astro hasnâ€™t been able to get a visa to tour the U.S. for some time, due at least in part to his conviction for â€œgrowing his ownâ€ back in his native England. While the rest of the band joked about the threat he and his plants posed to national security he did join the group â€œvia satellite,â€ appearing on a video screen throughout the set to take the lead on favorites like â€œRat In Mi Kitchen.â€
The energy UB40 brings to their live shows hasnâ€™t waned a bit and they led an appreciative crowd through one of the liveliest performances this reviewer has seen in some time. Everyone in attendance was up on their feet and moving for the entirety of this energetic set. The band, which retains all eight of its original members, may have advanced some in years but everything that made them great was still there: the rock steady horn section, the vocals of Ali Campbell and Astro that interweave British pop sensibilities with an island vibe, the solid rhythm section and soaring melodies.