For the third year in a row, Dave Wakeling brought his reconstituted English Beat line-up to St. Louis for a summer ska dance party. But unlike the shows in 2008 (with the Alarm and the Fixx) and 2009 (co-headlining with Reel Big Fish), the English Beat didn't have to share the Duck Room stage. That fact alone helped make the last night's concert the best of the band's recent visits: On the '80s nostalgia tours or ska revival shows, the band tends to highlight its most immediate, accessible hits. With a longer set time and a sold-out crowd, Wakeling and his crew played 90 minutes worth of hits, deep cuts, some General Public chestnuts and a few new songs.
When I spoke to Wakeling last year, he outlined the various strands that made up the Beat's sound. "I like anything that has a pop drive to it but also has a syncopated backbeat -- it is my favorite groove to write in. But for me, that's as much a mixture of pop, punk and reggae as it is ska. For the Beat, ska was just one in a number of influences."
In its heyday, the English Beat were always the poppiest of the British ska scenesters. The band drew as much from Motown and American soul as it did from reggae and dub, and that mixture helped it cross into pop radio in the '80s -- and has kept the sound from becoming dated. Still, the concert was mostly a nostalgia-fest for the largely over-40 crowd - there was more head-bobbing than straight skanking on the dance floor, but nearly every song was met with recognition and applause.
As in concerts past, the setlist focused heavily on the band's 1980 debut I Just Can't Stop It. There's a good reason for that: There's not a bum track on it, as evidenced by the opening song, "Rough Rider." It was one of several songs that benefited from a more relaxed approach - the ska upticks were still present, but there was no reason to rush through the song. As befitting a band that has just turned 30, the Beat let things simmer a bit. A few more early tracks followed - the famed cover of "Tears of a Clown," which featured a more rock & roll vibe, and the cautionary tale "Hands Off She's Mine." Wakeling looks and sounds like a singer who is on the other side of middle age; he's a little more stout and his voice is a little more raspy, two changes from the floppy-haired blonde most of the show-goers grew up with. But he's also become a funny, relaxed front man, completely aware of the English Beat's status as a throwback party band. His band mates know how to play the part, too, but do so with precision and verve.
Bassist Wayne Lothian is the band's rhythmic soul, punctuating the intro to "Twist & Crawl" with appropriate plucks and slaps. Antonee First Class fills the vocal role originally created by Ranking Roger, offering more harmonies than reggae-based toasts and serving as something of a hype man. He aptly handled the lead on "Ranking Full Stop," which merged seamlessly into "Mirror in the Bathroom" toward the end of the set.
The straight-ahead ska songs were the heart of last night's show, but the airing of Wakeling's pop gems made the show memorable. The piano-pop melodrama of "I Confess" (from the band's swan song, Special Beat Service) was a treat, as was the similarly heart-on-sleeve "Never You Done That" (from Wakeling and Roger's post-Beat group General Public).
In the past few years, Wakeling has murmured about making new recordings with the band, and last night he performed a few new songs. From first listen, they maintain the high-energy ska sound of the first record, and last night the new ones fit alongside the old ones nicely.