“There can only be one truly great festival of a lifetime, and it’s the US Festival.” – Homer Simpson.
“What’s your best band?” was a common question heard round the playgrounds and municipal swimming pools of my youth. My musical tastes were weird to say the least. I was a huge fan of (among others) Oingo Boingo, The Specials, Madness, The English Beat, and Bad Manners. Experience had led me to the conclusion that answering the aforementioned question with anything other than The Human League or Duran Duran, would invite stares that screamed LAME, or garner enraging comments of the following variety: “I don’t even know who that is, but I’ll tell you who is rad: The Thompson Twins!”
I remember reading about an upcoming music festival in some magazine, and upon seeing the participating bands, cursed the fact that I was not at least 7 years older and/or was not in direct possession of cooler parents. The Ramones, The English Beat, Oingo Boingo, Talking Heads, and The Police set to perform in the first day; and as an ancillary benefit, there was nary a mention of the Thompson Twins!
The name of this musical orgy was unimportant to me at the time, but I later learned that I had been reading about the US Festival, a three (or four) day outdoor music event orchestrated by Steve Wozniak in Santa Barbara, CA. Although the US Festivals were staggering financial failures, (the loss for both is rumored to be 20 million) the impact of Steve Wozniak’s vision for a multi-day celebration of music (of wildly eclectic genres) and technology is reflected in current festivals: SXSW and Coachella to name a few. In addition to the vision, there are also quite a few recordings that, with the exception of heavy metal band Triumph’s live dvd release in 2003, have never seen commercial light of day. Shout! Factory is intent on changing that with the release of their Live at the US Festival series that so far includes, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Quiet Riot, and as of September 11th 2012, The English Beat.
The English Beat introduced a gritty percussive pulse to the genre, perhaps best evinced in the hits “Twist & Crawl” and “Mirror In The Bathroom.” Combined with the dreamy tenor of Jamaican ska legend, Saxa, Dave Wakeling’s dulcet crooning, and the super-sonic toasting of Ranking Roger, The English Beat were among the most unique of the second wave ska bands, and are still a staple of alternative stations across the globe.
The English Beat live at the US Festival combines a 16/26 song CD/DVD of the performances from their two appearances, September 3rd of 1982 and May 28th of 1983.
Vocal Quality: The vocals are excellent. Every nuance in Dave Wakeling’s posh baritone comes through with rich clarity. Consider “Ackee 1 2 3,” “Twist & Crawl,” “Spar Wid Me,” “Save It For Later,” and “Jeanette.” Ranking Roger’s rapid fire toasting, tongue trills and vocal effects on tracks like “Ranking Full Stop” and “Get-A-Job/Stand Down Margaret” are pure ear candy!
Overall Sound Quality/Performance: Not the best. The balance of the lower end instruments is poor. The bass (guitar) and bass drum are often barely audible, leaving many of the songs sounding as though they have no foundation. The watery vibe of the Hammond B3 and accompanying Leslie speaker are all but lost on a majority of the recordings, barely surfacing on tracks like “Get-A-Job/Stand Down Margaret” and “Ranking Full Stop.” The saxes (Saxa and touring member Wesley Magoogan) however come through with some depth, making the growls, honks, and flights of reed fancy enjoyable. Overall, this is not the best recording. To be fair, this is not The English Beat at their best either. Nor should we expect them to be in top form in the 100+ degree heat of early September. The heat could have been a factor in the US Festival promoters changing the event month from September to May in 1983. The impact is noticeable, the songs from The English Beat’s second appearance are generally better with regard to performance.
Standouts: The joyous eruption of sax that transitions “Get-A-Job” to “Stand Down Margaret” is worth the price of admission alone. “Ackee 1 2 3,” “Jeanette,” “Twist & Crawl,” “Ranking Full Stop,” “Hands Off She’s Mine,” and “Doors Of Your Heart.” “Tears Of A Clown” is one of only two officially released live versions (the other is included on The Complete Beat compilation released by Shout! Factory July 2012). It’s rare and worth a listen, but with that in mind, it’s sloppy and crazy fast. How fast? So fast that drummer Everette Morton, normally as solid and steady as the day is long, stumbles at the 25 second mark.
Video: Looks great. You can see the sweat evaporating off Dave Wakeling. Strain to hear the music over Andy Cox and David Steele’s (guitarist and bassist respectively) shirts. Marvel at Ranking Roger’s choice of black button down in 100+ heat!
Overall: Solid product. Generous helpings of ska goodness: Dig the concert footage, then listen to your favorite English Beat tracks! If you own I Just Can’t Stop, Wha’ppen? , Special Beat Service or any greatest hits collection from The English Beat, this is a must have! Well done Shout! Factory, well done!
ComicsOnline gives The English Beat Live at the Us Festival 4 Walt Jabscos out of 5!
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