Crime detecting asset or invasion of privacy opinions aside, The CCTV fundraiser at The Exchange nightclub in the basement of Devizes Corn Exchange went off with a reggae boom last night, when UB40 tribute Johnny2Bad paid a visit, and you know me, on the rare occasion reggae comes to town I want in on it!
We covered the reason for the campaign in a preview post, concentration should focus on the visiting band today, who were fantastic. Aside witticisms of “the Bin” too, for though it’s been a while since I descended those stairs, (and the first time sober!) the décor is updated and comfy, the crowd and staff hospitable, the drinks affordable for a nightclub, but most importantly, it retains its aged amphitheatre setup, functional, with seating boxing in a dancefloor and the bar rearward across the back wall; it works.
Though with a wide-range of disco classics, resident DJ Flash (no, not the NYC grandmaster one!) appeased the wide-spanning demographic of the audience, many regulars while others reggae devotes here for the particular show, anticipation was focussed on the Birmingham band Johnny2Bad, who bounced on stage close to ten o’clock and didn’t pause for breath.
The tribute act scene is vast and blossoming into a mass market, some pub venues pledge allegiance and rarely book original acts. Yet you take the rough with the smooth, I find when they’re bad, they’re excruciatingly bad, but when they’re good you’re in for a blinding night of retrospection, and they drive punters to the bar. Research paramount for event coordinators, picking badly will tarnish all tribute acts with the same brush, for the individual.
There was a couple down the Bin last night who travelled up from Portsmouth, and while I don’t doubt, they liked UB40, he wasn’t wearing a UB40 T-shirt, he was wearing a Johnny2Bad one. Keen to cast an exceptional appraisal of the band to me prior to their performance, any engagement mentioning the band they’re attributing didn’t get such a positive response; he was here to see Johnny2Bad, rather than a UB40 tribute act, and the relevance of this point is evident in said performance.
For Johnny2Bad waiver in and out of a tribute to UB40 and staging a show within their own right, yet it blends so utterly perfectly. At times, such as the sublime mimicking of “If it Happens Again,” and Holt’s “Homely Girl,” the first real glimpses of a UB40 tribute, it shone in acknowledgement to the reggae virtuosos, whereas in other moments you were not mistaken this was also a band within their own right.
And what a band; the refined entertainment value was exceptional, as this blending left you guessing what was next. I put it to frontman Mitch Thomson, rather than simply drone out a setlist of UB40 hits, they added elements, such as visual banter or reprises of other songs, such as Marley’s Small Axe at the beginning, and Mungo Jerry’s in the Summertime, to make it exciting. He agreed, suggesting they liked to make a show of it.
And Mitch is indeed a showman, rather than resembling Ali Campbell visually, though at times his voice captured that forced Brummie-patois fusion perfectly, he was his own man, lively and confident, amusing and alluring to the fairer sex! The proficiency of the band complimented this, tight-knit and adroitly professional they blessed the Exchange with the soulful sound of roots reggae which inspired UB40, occasionally subtle drifts into a more contemporary dancehall style, but majorly readapting the known classics.
I also wanted to gage Mitch about differences they experience when playing in their hometown, being UB40 is pride of Birmingham and respected above all things there. Are they driven to cover rarer, album tracks, for example when playing to a crowd of serious UB40 aficionados? Mitch was keen to express he liked UB40’s older, and often slower repertoire, but while it made little difference if they were in their mutual hometown as UB40, or not, they aimed to play to the crowd. And in this case, as I’m sure many others too, the crowd would demand the hits, which, post Red, Red Wine, are, it has to be said, mostly covers of reggae classic themselves.
Though Johnny2Bad slipped in some I’d consider lesser hits, such as One in Ten, with every tune they did it was of such exceptional quality, you know what, none of these technicalities really matter in the scheme of things. Mitch expressed shows as far away as Holland and Germany were incredibly well received, suggesting they “showed us up,” assuming he meant either Brits in general, or Brummies.
If I had reservations about the band name, taken from the Slickers’ 1970 Jamaican hit “Johnny Too Bad,” a personification of a Kingston rude boy gangster referenced in The Harder They Come, movie, although UB40 did cover it, many others did too, and UB40’s version was never a hit. Perhaps that’s the point in picking a rarer cover as namesake, because while Johnny2Bad are in essence a tribute act, there’s something of their own merit inclusive, and that part is equal to the overall excellence of their act; either that or I’m overthinking it, and they just liked the name!
Importantly, they bought the show with them, and torn down the house; a remarkable achievement from an accomplished act, tribute or not. Fourth wall breaking moments, such as the singer dropping offstage to sing among the crowd cliché, perhaps, but for the brass section to do likewise was something else. How often are you on the Exchange’s dancefloor, or any dancefloor come to think of it, with a trombonist playing next to you?! For me, as a reggae-ska lover who knows brass is class, that was the icing on the cake of a thrilling and professionally entertaining show.
As I’ve discovered through Legend, the Bob Marley tribute, and more recently, the Blondie tribute Dirty Harry, and now these guys, their excellence will turn any preconceptions of tribute acts on their heads; Johnny2Bad is an unmissable show; if it happens again you need to be there!
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