Reggae vocalist finds that the alchemy still exists as FLICKY HARRISON learns

ASTRO, the rapper and vocalist from UB40, walked out on stage at the O2 Arena to sing with his old buddies Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue and the crowd went wild.

It was all the signal that Astro, aka Terence Wilson, needed to get back in the groove with the reggae pioneers.

He said the London arena gig was supposed to be a ‘dip your toe in’ affair to see if the chemistry was still there.

The special alchemy that had inspired all three musicians in 1978, when they set up UB40, was not only there, but was in flame and continues to burn brightly.

Astro said: “It was the second best move I have ever made. The first best move was joining with Ali and Mickey in the first place. It has been fantastic. We are having a blast.’’ In 2008 Ali and Mickey left the band but Astro stayed with the rest of UB40 until 2013.

“It was when they started to do a country album I knew it wasn’t right for me,’’ said the rapper.

The trio – now known as UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro – are heading to the Westonbirt Arboretum in Tetbury on Saturday, June 18, as part of Forest Alive, the annual concert series organised by the Forestry Commission. Astra says he can’t wait.

“I want it to be a beautiful sunny day so everyone can have their picnics,’’ he said. “I love outside gigs because you are not battling with the acoustics of a building.’’ The band was formed in Birmingham and named after what was then a form for signing on the dole, called the Unemployment Benefit 40.

The guys had only played around 12 shows together when they got a date at the Rock Garden in London.

They were playing to a crowd of about 100 people and in the audience was Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. She asked the band to join her on a 30-date tour and by the end UB40 had their first UK hit single, King/Food For Thought, which made it to number four.

For the next 30 years UB40 notched up 50 singles in the UK charts, sold 70 million records and netted two US Billboard Hot 100 number ones with Red Red Wine and Can’t Help Falling In Love, which also went to number one in the UK along with I Got You Babe.

Astro says the musicians were all on a mission to popularise reggae music.

“We were the pioneers then and we are still out there, visiting the far flung corners of the earth. Reggae is an international language. Many people don’t speak English so it’s not the lyrics, it’s the drum and bass line that is worth 1,000 words,’’ says Astro. “When you are in Papua New Guinea and they know the words to all our songs it’s just incredible.’’ Since getting back together the UB40 trio have recorded a studio album called Silhouette, which is a mix of their own original songs and ‘reggaefied’ covers.

“They had finished the album by the time I joined them but Ali held back release date so I could do my thing on the record,’’ said Astro.

The singer writes all his own lyrics and, like many rappers, cut his teeth on writing poetry. He is also a percussionist and trumpet player, although he admits he has not played brass for a while.

UB40 make a welcome return to Westonbirt almost 10 years to the day since they played there last, with special guests Radio Riddler. Tickets are £38.40 plus £4.35 booking fee from 03000 680400 or www.fores uk/music - Flicky Harrison