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Interview: Reggae legend Ali Campbell

As founding members of Britain’s biggest reggae band UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue topped the UK singles chart on three occasions and sold 70 million records as they took their smooth yet rootsy musical blend to all corners of the globe. Now with ‘A Real Labour Of Love’ the trio give us a fresh take on the legendary series of albums, putting the focus primarily on reggae tracks from the 1980s.

We got to talk to Ali and we started out by asking him about the inspirations behind the new album.

idp: First of all congratulations on a fine new album. It’s got the real classic UB40 feel – a bit cheeky, a bit sly, a bit chilled, a bit romantic. It’s going to be very popular with the fans, I’m sure of that. And it sounds like you were all having a lot of fun in the studio.

Ali Campbell: Well yes, we loved it. It’s a delight to go into a studio to record songs that you already know and that you love. That’s why we called them the Labour of Love albums. We’ve called this one A Real Labour Of Love just to differentiate it but they were very successful albums. We sold more than 21 million of them and some of our biggest hits came from them including Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.

What made you decide that the time right for a new version and what’s special about the songs on this one?

They’ve been asking us for a long time to do another one so we thought that enough time had passed and we should give it a go. The songs that we cover on this album are all over thirty years old now. They’re the songs that we listened to when we were on the road with the first Labour Of Love album. When we made that album we were we were just covering the songs we grew up listening to – the songs that made us love reggae in the first place – whereas this one takes us into the 80s. These are the songs from when I was in Jamaica.They’re all classics and big hits in the reggae world and we’re trying to bring them to a new audience.

I’ve spent a long time on YouTube and elsewhere tracking down the originals of some of these songs and it has reminded me just how powerful great pop can be. How were the songs for this album chosen and did they bring back a rush of memories for you of the time when you first heard them?

Well most of them are reggae classics that I was listening to in the 80s like JC Lodge’s Telephone Love and Strive by Shinehead which is a great record. And then of course there’s She Loves Me Now by the great Dennis Hammond which is the first single from the album. There’s a really nice and funny little film to go with it and you can find that online. These are the sounds that made us love reggae in the first place and when me and Astro sat down and started to draw up a list we were like all we got to have some Dennis and we’ve got to have some Gregory. It really is a joy to do these albums. It’s always nice doing your own material but it’s a lot easier and more fun to cover songs that you love. It’s only what The Beatles did and the Stones and The Who but they loved blues and we love reggae. Their hero was Bob Dylan and mine was Bob Marley.

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It sound like you’re still as passionate as ever about making music.

It’s the best job ever and i think I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world right now. I think this is the best thing we’ve done in 25 years.

How does your approach to a covers album differ from making an album of original material? It must be important to avoid doing anything like a note for note copy.

If there’s a secret to it, it’s that you have to stay true to the melody because that’s why you liked the song in the first place but then we do our take on it and we try and make it more accessible to a pop audience. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do really, When we started the band in the first place my main idea was because I loved reggae music I wanted to promote reggae music.

Just like I loved dub and I wanted to spread the word about that. There’s a song by Goldie Lookin Chain and one of the lyrics goes “I wouldn’t know what dub was if it wasn’t for UB40” and hearing that for the first time was one of my proudest moments. The first dub album we did was our third album I think. Present Arms had gone in at number two and we thought this is the perfect time to do a dub album and show people what it’s all about. A lot of people brought the album and then took it back to the shop saying it was faulty. No vocal and some strange echoey sounds. But if you look all around the world at pop music today so much of it is informed by reggae beats. People like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande even The Script. I saw them the other day doing a reggae track. The Sly Dunbar beat, the Bogle beat, that’s what contemporary dance music is at the moment. So reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been which makes me happy.

There’s some excellent artwork with the album and you’re auctioning some of it for charity. It’s nice to see performers taking an interest in the music as an artefact for a change. We used to love reading the album sleeves and looking through the racks at the record shop but now it’s all electronic, living in download world as we do.

It can be a bit soul destroying when you spend a year or two of your life making an album from its inception to the point where it’s finished and you spend all that time and all that money and all that effort and then you see people listening on little white headsets coming out of their phones. It’s like why was I worried about getting the bottom end to sound just right and trying to marry the bass drum and the bass guitar perfectly; it all seems a bit futile but it’s what we do. When you go back and you’re re-recording tracks that you remember as classics they always seem a bit rougher than you remember them. So it’s nice to go in and do a clean version and try and reduce it as best I can.

You act as the producer on the album. Is that something you’ve always done.

UB40 have always produced their own around music and I like to be there at the mix because there’s nobody else who knows better than I do how I want it to sound. We had Sly and Robbie mix for us but even though they’re geniuses and we love them it’s never been exactly what we wanted out of our own music. We believe we’re the ones who know what it’s meant to sound like.

Any particular favourite tracks on this album that you’d recommend we go listen to?

I think people should go and have a look at the funny little movie that goes with She Loves Me Now. It’s a terrifying thing to follow in the footsteps of Dennis Hammond I felt the same way when we did Many Rivers To Cross. It’s a tall order. I had a lot of sleepless nights and worry because he’s one of my favourite singers. It’s a bit like taking on Stevie Wonder. That’s got to be one of my favourite tracks on the album because it’s one of my favourite songs of all time anyway.

You’ve got lots of festivals lined up and an arena tour as well so you’re going to have a busy few months.

We’re doing mostly festivals in England and Europe this year. I still love touring and playing live. As I said I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment we’ve we’ve had Morgan Heritage play with us, and Inner Circle and and Jo Mersa Marley. Raging Fyah too, they’re one of my favourite bands of the moment.

Well thanks for the chat, congratulations again on the album and we’ll hope to catch one of your summer festival shows.

Thank you.

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Jess & The Bandits: Fruit, Hull – live review

Last September, just as Jess Clemmons was setting out with The Bandits on a UK tour in support of her new album, the gospel influenced Smoke And Mirrors, Hurricane Harvey struck her hometown of Houston, Texas, causing extensive damage to her mother’s home and necessitating the cancellation of the tour. Five months on and she’s back with us, kicking off the rearranged tour at Fruit in Hull and proving to the doubters (if there were any) that the change of style hasn’t diminished her ability to create some of the finest cast iron ballads and torch songs you’ll ever hear.

Opening the show is up and coming Glaswegian country pop artist Kevin McGuire, who is also on a roll at the moment with the release of 2017’s debut EP Foreign Country leading to performances for the BBC and at the Nashville Meets London Festival.

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Highlights of his set include the new single Late, 3am which is an unusual up tempo break up song written from the perspective of a rejected lover who now unwillingly finds himself in demand again, and the last song of the set, Alright Tonight, which I’d recommend checking out soonest you have the chance. McGuire is one of a growing number of home grown country performers who seem confident enough to produce authentically British country music without the need to slavishly follow US music, although he is clearly influenced by the likes of Rascal Flatts and Sam Hunt.

Jess Clemmons has changed the line up of her band since I saw them last. They’re still bandits of course, but they’re different bandits, better suited to her new sound, on display on the fine new album, Smoke And Mirrors. There are still plenty of high powered country rock grooves of course, she hasn’t gone all wimpy on us all of sudden, and the show kicks off with My Name Is Trouble straight out of our favourites playbook before swinging into love Like That, another favourite and I’m Not Going Home, whose power shows the close connection between both sets of songs old and new.

Vocally she’s in fine form voice is in fine form – she’s as good a country singer as I’ve ever heard live – capable of a wide range of emotional colour plus considerably more out and out charismatic sexiness than one person really ought to possess. It’s not fair really it isn’t.

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The set is a mix of the best of the two albums with highlights including The World’s Still Round, whose brooding verse explodes into some great rock and roll, White Lies which slows things down a little but has a classic broken lives and shattered dreams feel to it, Gone Girl for which Clemmons channels her inner Dolly Parton and Nitty Gritty which has the whole room singing.

By tradition the set includes a couple of covers – on this occasion it’s Mama told Me not To Come and Bonnie Raitt’s Love Sneaking Up which is followed by the outstanding track from Smoke And Mirrors, the gospel anthem of empowerment Sister.

And of course the show ends with some of real favourites – bring the house down rocker Ready Set, the emotionally supercharged Fault Lines and to round it all off Single Tonight.

A fine show from one of our favourite performers and if I get the chance I’ll try to catch another show later in the year. If you get the chance you should too.

Bingley Music Live 2014

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Bingley Music Live 2014
Myrtle Park, Bingley
29th – 31st August 2014

One of the best weekends of the year, family atmosphere, great music, warm beer – it’s Bingley time!

Bingley always seems like an unlikely place to hold a music festival. For those scrabbling for their atlases it’s on the River Aire, just north of Bradford, with a skyline that bears witness to both its roots as a mill town and its status as the home of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society whose epic brutalist head office squats like a brown concrete toad in the town centre. It also boasts a curious tower with a pergola on top which looks like it could have been the inspiration for the hiding places in Assassin’s Creed.

Bingley Music Live, sponsored by Bradford Council and held annually at Myrtle Park is a proper old fashioned pop festival which since 2008 has offered three days (originally two) of quality music at ridiculously good value prices. There are no pretensions to high art here. It isn’t full of bearded hipsters or street performers reciting fragments of Shakespeare at bemused passers by or aging hippies or crazy retro people with staring eyes, it’s just families looking for a great day out listening to music in the company of their children and some warm beer.

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QRO review and images

R’n’B

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This year’s line up was a little more chart orientated then previously which meant doing a bit of research in advance (no bad thing for us aging photographers desperately trying to be down with the kids) but the crowds loved it all, or almost all anyway.

My previous experiences with contemporary R’n’B had led me to think that it chiefly consisted of a man pretending to be working some sort of sound desk while another man (or woman) shouted “Come on now (insert name of venue here) make some noise” and then jumping up and down in a very silly way and clapping. For extra emphasis the phrase could be varied by the addition of adjectives, for example “Come on now (insert name of venue here) make some fucking noise”. For even more emphasis the jumping and clapping could be made very silly indeed.

Excellent sets from MNEK, Jess Glynne and Chloe Howl went some way towards dispelling that view although there were outbreaks of clappy, shouty dancey stuff at other times through the weekend, but I won’t dwell on them. There was a lot of great music on offer and I’ll concentrate on that instead.

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Discoveries of the weekend

The Strypes have been blazing a trail through the music scene for the past couple of years and gathering reviews so good that I’d started getting a bit suspicious and thinking that they couldn’t possibly be that wonderful, but of course they are that wonderful. I had intended to listen for ten minutes and then go take some photos on the other stage but I didn’t because their reinvented 60s rock pop just grabs you. Judging by the squeals in the crowd it works on girls too. It doesn’t matter who you say they remind you of because they’ve clearly done their homework and they sound like a whole generation but it’s between The Who and the Beatles and Bo Diddley and The Yardbirds and all the rest. Hailing from Cavan in Northern Ireland they are simply ridiculously good and they’re all younger than my car.

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Less well known as yet but equally good was Emma Garrett and her band on the top stage. In a fortnight when I have spent hours listening to my Kate Bush albums and seen St Vincent live at Leeds the last thing I expected on the small stage at Bingley was a female vocal that threatened to make them other two seem just a little bit ordinary. Emma has been compared to both the aforementioned singers and to Florence Welch and lots of others and she can mix rock, soul, jazz and folk into one song with just a hint of musical theatre showmanship and it sounds just perfect. Check out her SoundCloud immediately.

And an outside pick. It’s not often anyone gets booed at Bingley but Etta Bond appeared to misjudge what was required from her at a family festival and delivered a set loaded with sexual detail and other varieties of bad language and the crowd hated her and let her know about it. That’s Yorkshire for ya. Her performance and on stage demeanour didn’t do her any favours either – whether it was the fault of the sound system or whatever she sounded as flat as a pancake. Since getting home I’ve spent a couple of hours listening to her stuff and she’s a talented writer and performer who I’ve no doubt we’ll hear more of in future and in fairness to her the booking people might have figured out that a woman who tweets as C.U.N.T. is probably not going to go down well with the mums and dads.

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Old friends of the weekend

Not friends in the sense that I’ve been round their house for tea or anything but among the bands that I was already familiar with there were two standouts.

Firstly The Selecter who, legal difficulties with rivals having been dealt with are now entitled to use that name. They have original vocalists Pauline Black and Arthur Gaps Hendrickson and they delivered a set that sounded as streetwise and energetic as if it was a teenage tribute band and not the real thing at all, finishing with On My Radio and Too Much Pressure/Pressure Drop – one of the major highlights of the weekend.

As were the opening songs of the set by The South. It’s no secret that I have a fondness for elegantly witty pop and at their best The Beautiful South could deliver that in spades. They are now fronted by Alison Wheeler and Dave Hemingway and I had everything planned so I could catch the whole of their set but difficulties with the sound meant that I only got the first few songs, (which sounded wonderful). They’re on tour this autumn however so watch this space.

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Headliners

Friday night saw Shed Seven make the journey all the way from York for a set of their greatest hits that served to remind us that even if the whole Britpop thing is now seen as a cultural disaster on an epic scale there were good bands around at the time who never quite got the recognition they deserved. Shed Seven were a lot smarter than some of their more illustrious contemporaries and the dry wit of frontman Rick Witters was much in evidence during their set. They also played the most energetic set of the weekend and no sooner had they taken the stage than Witter’s natural exuberance saw him almost disappear into the crowd over the barriers. Their set featured classics like Dolphin, Disco Down and Rainbows as well as a storming cover of Born To Run, a song by former rock god and now Butlin’s redcoat Bruce Springsteen.

It was the turn of rnb to take centre stage on Saturday with Example heading the bill. There’s not much point in me pretending to comment on his set except to say that the multitude loved it, there was lots of audience participation – “Come on now Bingley make some noise, jump, clap – and it culminated in a spectacular light show.

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Rounding off the weekend were Sunday night’s headliners The Pet Shop Boys who brought their Electric World Tour show to the Bingley stage complete with spectacular lights, a whole stage projection screen, dancing orange minotaurs (my favourite flavour of minotaur as it happens), massive feathered power shoulders, projection beds (really), and pzazz and razzamatazz than you can shake the z key on your keyboard at. It was a show that walked the finest of lines between superlative showmanship and embarrassing nonsense and always stayed exactly on the right side. If any greatest hits were missing I didn’t notice and nobody seemed to care and the explosion of confetti that accompanied It’s A Sin brought the festival to a fittingly spectacular close.

Same time next year?

Yes please.