INTERVIEW: UB40 may have a new lead singer but the hits endure

The reggae act is at Stockbridge Amphitheatre Sept. 2 with the Original Wailers, Big Mountain and Maxi Priest.

For successful bands that originated in the 1970s, very few have all their original band members 40-plus years later. A combination of mortality, illness and creative differences splinter them apart. And sometimes this results in multiple iterations of said band.

Take UB40, the British reggae group that found pop success stateside with a series of covers, most notably “Red, Red Wine” (Neil Diamond), “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (Al Green) and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis Presley). Ali Campbell, the leader singer for 30 years, left voluntarily in 2008 and now tours as “UB40 with Ali Campbell.”

The version coming to Stockbridge Amphitheatre Friday includes three members who harken back to 1978 when the band formed in Birmingham, U.K.: guitarist Robin Campbell, drummer Jimmy Brown, percussionist Norman Hassan and bassist Earl Falconer. (Tickets are $45 to $265.) The band’s current U.S. leg of its world tour started in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Aug. 18 and ends in Henderson, Nevada, on Sept. 24.

On social media, fans are split between Team Ali Campbell and Team The Rest of the Band.

“It sometimes gets a bit blurry,” admits Falconer in a Zoom interview with his UB40 colleague Brown.

“When Peter Gabriel left Genesis, he didn’t call himself Genesis with Peter Gabriel,” Brown noted. “We think it’s wrong. The problem was when he toured as Ali Campbell for a couple of years, people didn’t buy tickets. Four years after he left, he started using UB40.”

After Campbell left UB40, the remaining members found a replacement lead singer very close to home: Ali’s brother Duncan Campbell. That combination worked for a few years and last appeared in Atlanta at the Buckhead Theatre in 2019, but Duncan had a stroke in 2020 and isn’t quite in shape to tour.

“He’s still recuperating,” said Brown. “I saw him the other day and he looks pretty good.”

“Duncan might turn up on a performance like a Christmas show in Birmingham, but as for touring, he’s basically retired now,” Falconer added. “He could still record stuff, too.”

So the remaining members pivoted again during the pandemic and recruited Matt Doyle, who does sound a bit like the original singer and happens to be a nephew of percussionist Hassan.

“We love to keep things in the family if we can,” Brown said.

“He looks like Jude Law,” Falconer added. “Girls love him!”

Ultimately Brown said, UB40 has never been about one person. “We had these socialist ideals,” he said. “We believe everybody gets their say and it’s worked for us. It’s kept us together.”

Doyle, who is a generation younger than Brown and Falconer, could carry on the UB40 tradition after they’ve retired. “UB40,” Brown said, “is a brand and a band.”

Plus, while Ali Campbell tended to focus on covers, Doyle has enabled the group to focus on new music. “We’re a living, breathing band who write our own stuff,” Falconer said.

About half the set now is newer music. “We can get away with it because we have these big tunes we can scatter throughout,” Brown said.

UB40 did suffer a major loss last year when lyricist and saxophonist Brian Travers died of cancer at age 62. “He was our most charismatic live performer,” Brown said. “People couldn’t take their eyes off of him. That’s a big hole we have to try to compensate for in our own way.”

And like other classic bands with legendary tunes, UB40 got some TikTok love when a remix of their biggest song “Red Red Wine” became a dance challenge for a hot second in 2020.

“It went mega!” Falconer said. “It’s like another generation of people who wouldn’t have necessarily known our music.”


UB40 with the Original Wailers, Maxi Priest and Big Mountain

7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2. $45-$265. Stockbridge Amphitheatre, 4650 N. Henry Blvd., Stockbridge.

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