Though the KCRW sponsored Reggae Night XX at the Hollywood Bowl featured four very popular and enduring genre bands, the billings and the set length (90 minutes) made it clear that the hoppin’, endlessly funky, lilting and grooving four hour festival was centered around legendary British band UB40’s a major pre-45th Anniversary celebration – more officially known as their Bigga Baggariddim tour – and the introduction of their powerhouse new lead singer, Matt Doyle, with some lead vocals by founding members Robin Campbell and super charismatic trombonist/percussionist Norman Hassan.
It's fascinating that for all of UB40’s 100 million albums sold worldwide and more than 50 charting singles in the UK, their “money” songs – the ones the U.S. crowds most anticipate and sing along to are still, over 30 years later, their uber infectious, sly and lilting (and wonderfully escapist) #1 hit twist on Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine” and Elvis’ “(I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” which made for the perfect finale singalong encore. Beyond those hits and other hit reworkings of American R&B classics – from their opening number Al Green’s “Here I Am” to the Smokey Robinson penned “The Way You Do The Things You Do” – UB40 is known for its masterful sociopolitical and globally conscious songwriting.
This renown opened the door for them to be commissioned to pen the unity anthem “Champion,” the official anthem of the Commonwealth Games 2022 – and one of the most engaging and uplifting original songs of the night. While everyone was clearly waiting for the mega international hits, UB40 gave attentive listeners and real fans of the band some of the great chestnuts from their ample catalog, including the encouraging, horn punched “The Keeper,” the soulful melancholy mantra “Broken Man” and the whimsically romantic “Cherry Oh Baby.”
What can only be termed “awesome reggae cover fever” was prevalent throughout the all too short pre-UB40 sets as well, from Big Mountain – whose funky, always charming spin on Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” was on obvious highlight of a three song, 13 minute set – to the irrepressible bundle of British reggae fusion star (of Jamaican descent) Maxi Priest, who funked up and prowled the stage like he owned it and featured his spins on Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and Stephen Bishop’s “On and On,” in addition to a few party anthems.
And of course, intoxicating, beautifully faithful so called “covers” of instantly recognizable Bob Marley classics (“I Shot the Sheriff,” “Stir It Up,” “Could You Be Loved” the whimsical audience participation crowd pleaser “Three Little Birds”) are the entire point of the glorious repertoire of The Original Wailers – a band formed in 2008 by American vocalist and musician Al Anderson, who played on five tours with Bob Marley & The Wailers in the mid to late 70’s, and fellow guitarist Junior Marvin.
Overall, it was a super fun, lively and inspiring festival at the Bowl, showcasing some of the best in contemporary American and British based reggae.