UB40 trio brings reggae hits to Belly Up Aspen
October 16, 2015
Many of UB40's best-known songs and biggest hits have been covers — often coming from some seemingly unlikely sources. There's Sonny and Cher ("I Got You Babe") and Elvis Presley ("Falling in Love With You") and, of course, Neil Diamond ("Red Red Wine"). Surprisingly, the Brits found some of their most iconic material without knowing the originals — only other reggae covers.
"We only knew 'Red Red Wine' by a guy named Tony Tribe," UB40 founding member, singer and trumpet player Astro said from his home in Birmingham, England. "Underneath the title, on the vinyl, it said 'N. Diamond.' We just thought he was a Jamaican guy."
The reggae hitmakers will play Belly Up on Saturday in what promises to be a crowd-pleasing show surveying the old hits, some new material and some surprises.
"We're fortunate that we've got this vast reservoir of music — over 40 Top 20 hits from the '80s and '90s, so we'll pick up all the hits and a couple of surprises," Astro said. "It should be something for everybody."
“Reggae is the most influential form of music on the planet today. You’ve got jungle and house and hip-hop and all of these things that come out of reggae. It’s very much a part of the fabric of contemporary music.”AstroUB40 founding member
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The band is in the midst of a world tour that brings them back to Aspen and North America for the first time since 2008. At that time, there was one UB40. These days, there are actually two versions of the band on the road — this one features Astro and original members Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue.
Campbell left after 30 years as UB40's front man in 2008. Keyboardist Virtue followed him, and Astro hung on until 2013. The last straw for Astro was the 2013 UB40 album, "Getting Over the Storm," that swerved the band toward country music and featured covers of songs by the likes of Willie Nelson, Randy Travis and Vince Gill.
"I just couldn't sit on stage and take part in that," Astro said.
The mission of UB40 since its formation in 1978, he said, has been to popularize reggae music. While the rest of the band may have strayed from that charge, he said, he and Campbell and Virtue are staying true to its original vision.
"That was a smack in the face to our fans," he said of the 2013 album. "We're trying to salvage the legacy."
Last year, Campbell, Virtue and Astro released "Silhouette," their first album together since the UB40 schism, which sticks to the pure reggae mission.
Despite the bad blood surrounding this feel-good band, going on stage and playing the hits and their fan-pleasing, party-friendly brand of reggae is as fulfilling as an artists' life gets, according to Astro.
"It's the best feeling in the world," he said. "'Red Red Wine' is the perfect example of a song that we never rehearse — not because we don't like it but because we know we've played it a million times — and the second we go on stage and perform it to the audience, the reaction makes you remember why you love that song. It's so infectious."
Astro said when the tour wraps up in June, his UB40 will be back in the studio to make another album.
Looking at today's pop music landscape, Astro is proud of reggae's growth and how — over the life of UB40 — it's influenced and infiltrated nearly every genre. Dance music, pop, rap — contemporary artists across the spectrum draw from reggae.
"Reggae is the most influential form of music on the planet today," he said. "You've got jungle and house and hip-hop and all of these things that come out of reggae. There are so many R&B songs using Jamaican artists and backing tracks that are all dub influenced. It's very much a part of the fabric of contemporary music."
But when it comes down to it, a UB40 show is a party (and Saturday's show is probably the best date night in Aspen this fall). The band's songs — influenced in the beginning by pre-reggae Jamaican music styles such as ska and rock-steady — haven't generally taken on politics, philosophy and mysticism like much of the genre's practitioners. Instead, UB40 has aimed for radio-friendly romance and beauty, which they aim to share with an Aspen crowd.
"We hope everybody comes out and comes to party, because we're coming to party," Astro said. "That's what music is for."
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