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The Beat, The Jam House, Birmingham

Ska stars turn back the clock

For the last three years, The Beat have been back together and playing regular gigs around the Midlands. In 1979, they became a key part of the Two Tone movement, combining vintage reggae music with punky pop. Now this old Birmingham band is sharpened once more into a fighting force, actively seeking a new recording contract and clearly ready for some more high-profile touring.

This is The Beat as fronted by the ever-youthful Rankin' Roger, but missing the original band's other main contender, Dave Wakeling, who had also helped form General Public in the early Eighties. Other off-shoots have included International Beat and Special Beat.

The Jam House is co-owned by Jools Holland, and has turned into something of an underground venue in recent years. Gigs often seem to happen here on a word-of-mouth basis, but this hasn't prevented a crush on the dancefloor tonight. The Beat are on home territory, confronted by a loyal and bullish crowd who are intent on dancing hard and getting beer in their hair.

Few performers can match the vigour of Rankin' Roger as he proceeds to jog on the spot for the next 90 minutes. Not even his son, Matthew Murphy, the co-vocalist now re-christened as Rankin' Junior. The duo are draped in matching black jackets, splashed with horizontal white drips, but these are soon ditched as the sweat begins to flow.

The Beat don't dawdle, as they open with "Tears of a Clown", one of their biggest hits. At first, for this Smokey Robinson cover, everything's too loud, distorting wildly and muffled by bass. Then, the mix settles down, and the Rankin' vocals spring forth more clearly. Drummer Everett Morton and keyboardist Dave Blockhead are both original Beat members, and they're joined by guitarist Neil Deathridge, who has worked with Roger on his two solo albums. Morton is another age-defier, playing drum patterns that are as precise as they are hyperactive. Sometimes he rolls with a dubby spaciousness, but mostly he's relaying tight whip-crack fills, ruthlessly driving the band with his springy stepping.

Mark Hamilton replaces the almost-retired Saxa on saxophone and Andy Pearson handles the bass. Mark is the son of jazz tenorman Andy Hamilton, the godfather of Birmingham's jazz scene. His solos are flooded with an endless ballroom reverb, and his rhythm honks sit well beside Rankin' Junior's huffing train-engine noises. Both father and son are blessed with a high-speed ska stutter that effectively provides The Beat with two extra percussionists, each acting as backing vocalist when the other takes the lead.

The set is weighted towards classic numbers, acting as a powerful reminder of just how many of these songs have remained ingrained in the minds of fans for more than two decades. "Mirror in the Bathroom", "Hands Off, She's Mine" and "Stand Down Margaret" shoot past, but The Beat have also been penning newer material which stands a good chance of joining the established ranks. "Roller Blades" is one of these, veering to-wards their more rocking of incarnations. As the Rankins sing "Rough Rider", it's amusing to witness the unusual instance of a father and son sharing in and savouring a song's high sexual innuendo.

As a tribute to Joe Strummer, they also cover "Rock the Casbah", and with an encore imminent, the unruly crowd ponders which of the band's classics can possibly remain. "Ranking Full Stop" is one of The Beat's best tunes, but not an obvious choice, while "Save It For Later" is surely their most naggingly melodic outing.

Rankin' Roger and Rankin' Junior bound around the stage like men possessed, sacrificing themselves solely to the pursuit of sincerely unaffected good times