So this was it. The culmination of a 40th anniversary (for The Specials) and forty years of me wanting to see the band. This is one of the longest trips Adrienne and I have taken to see a band, and driving from northern Virginia through D.C. to Silver Spring, MD, in the daytime rush was crazy (it took us two hours to get from the hotel to the venue, about 20 miles). I can tell you it was so worth it!
The reformed Specials, headed by original members singer Terry Hall, singer/guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter, were touring on their 40th anniversary and on the heels of their fine new release, Encore (see our review at www.tinyurl.com/zubencore). The first leg of the tour in Britain was graced with universally great reviews on the Twitterverse, so we were hoping for a good show.
The Specials, from Coventry, England, came out with their first self-titled LP (produced by Elvis Costello) in 1979, and were the vanguard of the second Ska wave, playing an uptempo hybrid of Reggae and Jamacian dance music welded to British pop. Their independent label, Two-Tone Records, was the launching pad for Madness, The Selecter, and The (English) Beat, among others. Their ethos was always, always foremost anti-racist, challenging represive government and staid social norms. They were OG “woke” and have maintained political passion at the heart of their work. Political commentary punctuated the set, funny and biting. The set was a backdrop of protest signs. The Specials remain on a mission.
Despite this political bent, The Specials had a reputation of being a sloppy, party type live band. But this reformed version of the band couldn’t have been more professional. The core three were augmented by guitarist Jake Fletcher, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kendrick Rowe, and two horn players, Pablo Mendelssohn and Tim Smart. The Specials came on to rolling spotlights and an air raid siren and launched into ‘Man At C&A’ from More Specials, a song dealing with nuclear war and fighting with the Ayatollah. This was followed by ‘Rat Race’ and ‘Do Nothing’ from the same LP. Next up was ‘Vote For Me,’ a new classic from Encore dealing with politicians and their hypocrisy. The single-only (from Ghost Town) ‘Friday Night Saturday Morning’ followed, a sing-along about a geezer with a serious drinking problem. “Blank Expression’ and ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ from The Specials were rolled out, then the band really kicked into gear with a Latin-flavored ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum,’ the VERY anti-gun song ‘Blam Blam Fever,’ and the magnificent ‘A Message To You Rudy,’ the horn players taking over, with the whole crowd skanking and singing along. Then they played an unexpected ‘Stereotype,’ using cha-cha rhythms, musak tempos, and a great toast/rap from Lynval at the end. Toasting, the Jamiacan spoken word art form over music (see our review of The Toasting/Sound System movie Babylon (www.tinyurl.co/zublion), was the precursor of rap/hip hop, and Lynval shone all night toasting along to their songs, Specials-style. Activist Saffiyah Khan (who was the DJ before the set) came onstage to do ‘Ten Commandments’ from Encore, and she quickly walked into the crowd, continuing her spoken word manifesto, while the band killed a deep, dub, reggae groove. Horace’s bass was truly outstanding and drummer Kendrick, making for a tight, hypnotic setting for Khan’s words.
They blew through ‘Nite Klub,’ ‘Do The Dog,’ ‘Concrete Jungle,’ and ‘Monkey Man’ (featuring Lynval’s full-on clowning mode). By this point the crowd was insane. Terry Hall’s vocals were solid and true on ‘Gangsters’ (see our podcast www.tinyurl.com/zubgangsters), and they ended the set with ‘Too Much Too Young.’ Lynval, the beating, beautiful heart of The Specials, came back on and led the band through a cover of the Skatillites ‘Eastern Standard Time.’ This was followed by the BEST version of ‘Ghost Town’ I’ve ever heard, the horns right in place and Nikolaj’s keyboards leading the attack, while the whole band sang the ghostly refrains. It was heaven! The Specials, with Saffi joining on backing vocals, ended with ‘You’re Wondering Now’ (...what to do, now this is the end) walking off stage while the crowd kept singing.
This was the show of my dreams, and the show of the year. This band is as strong and good and relevant as ever!