There are many things in life that define who you are and where you are headed. For me, it was May 20th, 1990. It was a warm day by any standard of measurement. I remember that day well; almost as if it was yesterday. In 1990, I was well immersed in covering bands as a media representative. This night I was going to Universal Amp to see a band I was very intrigued with: UB40.
By 1990, UB40 was already a heavyweight in the world of reggae. Thanks to their “Labour of Love” albums, songs like “Red Red Wine” made them a household name. For fans worldwide, it was more than a catchy song that drew them to this band; it was the conviction in their beliefs of being a good human and doing the right thing, especially when you did not have to. For UB40, their dedication and humility is what made them stand out and created the worldwide fanbase that they have to this day.
This year, UB40 is celebrating 45 years of a sonic vision that has captured our hearts and souls. That said, their fans were ecstatic to hear the news they would be on the road this summer for the UB45 tour (Feel Good Concert Tour). I was happy to see they would be playing in Los Angeles at the newly-named Peacock Theater (formerly The Microsoft Theater).
As the music fates would have it, the tour would feature two notable openers, Smash Mouth and Men at Work.
The day had come for UB40 to play in Los Angeles; on July 21st, 2023, it was eerily reminiscent of that day at Universal back in 1990. As the doors opened, there were fans lined up, filling the open space to “L.A. Live.” After all, the tour had been selling out venues throughout the country, and this night would bring a near-capacity crowd. It was another warm night in the City of Angels, and the marquee was lit up, welcoming all to the show.
Not long after doors, the lights went up, and out came a familiar face; Richard Blade was hosting the show and provided music in between sets for everyone to enjoy. Blade greeted the early birds and welcomed all three bands to Los Angeles, then promptly introduced Smash Mouth.
As the lights dimmed, the silhouette of the band came into focus, and the crowd cheered as the start of the show began. With new lead singer Zach Goode at the helm, Smash Mouth opened to “Crawling.” The band was immediately connecting with the crowd; they were amped to be there and they sounded tight. Goode thanked the crowd a few times for coming out early on a Friday night in L.A. traffic, which drew him an appreciative acknowledgement from the crowd.
Because they were an opener, the band played an abbreviated set, which was too bad, because they were connecting with the early birds. The crowd loved when they played “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” “Walkin’ on the Sun,” “I’m a Believer,” and their closing monster hit, “All Star.”
After a short intermission, which flew by thanks to Blade’s song selections of Australian bands, Men at Work front-man, Collin Hay, and the revamped band took the stage. The band just sounded amazing, featuring what is best described as world music to open. Hay came out to less familiar songs, “Touching the Untouchables,” “No Restrictions,” and “Down by the Sea,” but it was clear that the band featured exceptional musicians. It was an amazing set, then Hay said, “OK I see your eyes,” as he led the band into “Who Could It Be Now.” The crowd came to life and by then, the venue was starting to fill up.
Hay was great behind the mic, his vocals never sounded better, and he was funny. He shared a story about being from Australia, but coming originally from Scotland. He literally went back and forth in accents, which made everyone laugh.
Then, like the Pied Piper, he led Men at Work down a musical journey of yesteryear with “It’s a Mistake,” “Overkill,” and “Down Under,” before closing with crowd favorite “Be Good Johnny.”
As the last intermission was underway, Blade again mesmerized the crowd with great music and entertaining tidbits that took us to show time for the featured act, UB40.
As I looked around, the L.A. crowd did not disappoint. At near capacity, the roar as the band took the stage was almost deafening. Immediately, I saw cell phones come up as everyone was recording away.
With the UB40 banner draped behind the drum kit turning into an illuminated blue, the band opened to cheers with “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).”
The band was exactly as I remembered; they are comprised of professional musicians from top to bottom. For this show, I was eager to see their new (not so new now) singer, Matt Doyle. His vocals were tested on – and perfect for – their follow-up song, off “Rat in the Kitchen,” “Sing Our Own Song.”
Immediately fans cheered as the distinctive notes filled the venue, and it was in unison – it was the first of many moments throughout the night where the entire crowd sang along with Doyle… “We will fight for the right to be free, We will build our own society, And we will sing, We will sing… We will sing our own song!” Seriously, the crowd lost its mind as the song closed out.
As the show went on, guitarist and founding member, Robin Campbell introduced the band: Earl Falconer (bass/vocals), Norman Lamont Hassan (percussion/vocals), Martin Meredith (keys / sax), Jahred Gordon (keys), Laurence Parry (trumpet/trombone), Ian Thompson (sax), and the incomparable Gilly G (toaster/rapper). Lastly, the new guy, well – again not so new – lead singer Matt Doyle.
Despite Doyle being considered the new guy, the way he and Gilly G interact and take control of the stage for their vocal mastery is beyond impressive.
Here’s the thing; with the number of albums they have put out over 45 years, there is no way to fit their entire catalog under one roof at any venue. The show was about two hours, and I will say the fastest two hours ever at any show. UB40 was captivating from beginning to end. Some of the tunes included favorites like “Homely Girl,” their latest “Champion,” then other familiar songs like “Groovin’,” and their epic Eric Donaldson cover of “Cherry Oh Baby.”
What stood out to me, by this time the crowd was already fully engaged, singing along, but what launched the crowd into a different orbit was when Doyle uttered the opening lyrics to “Red Red Wine.”
It was a surreal moment for me as it took me back to Universal Amp, back to 1990; it was that same feeling of being one with everyone in the house. That’s the power of music, and the power that UB40 brings to any place they play.
With a momentary break as the show was over, the section I was sitting in started chanting “Johnny Too Bad – Johnny Too Bad!” Almost as if on cue to the chants, out stepped UB40 for an encore.
With devilish smiles, the guys took to the stage ready to entertain again.
Immediately the crowd went back into carton-crazy mode as “Food for Thought” was in the air. For me, it was their second song that knocked my socks off. As lights slightly dimmed, the keyboard sirens to “Kingston Town” filled the venue. I have covered the band at various times over their 45 years, and Doyle’s vocals were crazy good and again, the entire crowd sang along to a beautiful moment.
Then, it was just about time to call it a night, Robin Campbell thanked everyone for coming out and said they had one more song for us. Then Doyle took center stage and uttered the words that brought the house down… “Wise men say – only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you.” As the horns kicked in, phones went up again, and everyone was singing along.
As I looked around, I saw everyone, no matter their age, was singing, and singing to every word. I witnessed this song having a profound impact on some concertgoers; it was as if Elvis himself had entered the building. I could see men and women emotionally tied to this song and many were in tears as the light came up and UB40 left the building.
It was a moving experience for many, and the band did not disappoint; they were everything I remembered and more.
For me, the night was not quite over. I was lucky enough to stick around after the show with their publicist and was able to meet them. While I have interviewed some of them over the years, this would be my first face to face. All I can say is sometimes you are disappointed when you meet music legends, and sometimes you are pleasantly surprised. I am happy to report that they were kind, humble, funny and defined character and class.
If you have a chance, I highly recommend checking out UB40. Their music will entertain you, and their words will inspire you.