Friday, December 20, 2013

The English Beat at the Gramercy Theatre

A recession and high unemployment in England in the late 1970s led to great social and political strife, and this was reflected in the burgeoning punk music scene. Simultaneously, white youth and black youth banded to form a revival of Jamaican ska music, primarily led by the bands Madness, the Specials, the Selecter and the Beat. Formed in 1978 in Birmingham, England, the Beat brought a simple message of peace, love and unity set to old Caribbean dance rhythms crossed with soul, reggae, pop and punk sounds. When the band came to America, it used the name the English Beat. The band recorded three albums before the six members split evenly into three bands in 1983, General Public, the Fine Young Cannibals and the International Beat. Since 2006, founding lead vocalist/guitarist Dave Wakeling has been fronting the US version of the group as the English Beat, while founding vocalist/toaster Ranking Roger leads a UK version of the group known simply as the Beat.

The English Beat concert at the Gramercy Theatre tonight attracted followers of the 1980s ska scene as well as younger fans who may have come to ska via later-generation bands like Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto. Wakeling was the only original member of the English Beat, and between songs he light-heartedly poked fun at his age and his long history in music. Throughout the show, Wakeling was perpetually jovial as he often spoke to the audience in clever one-liners, snarky puns and detailed stories about how the songs came to be. The audience listened to his friendly chatter and then bopped to “Hands Off, She’s Mine”, “Twist and Crawl”, “Save it for Later”, “Mirror in the Bathroom” and many lesser known songs, including newer and unfamiliar tunes. The band also performed Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” (as covered by the Beat), the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” (as covered by General Public) and General Public’s “Tenderness.” Wakeling sang much like he did when he was 30 years thinner and blonder, and the band he assembled played the songs authentically. The biggest drawback was the lack of progress; despite the new songs and a fresh set of backing musicians, including toaster Antonee First Class, the show felt like a time warp, no longer on the cusp of something new and exciting. Nevertheless, it was a fine showcase of increasingly rare ska music.

Visit the English Beat at www.englishbeat.net.