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The Specials

Following a rapturously received 30th anniversary re-union tour in the spring and a series of summer festival appearances, Coventry legends The Specials are once again on the road. Steve Beauchampé reports on Tuesday’s show at Wolverhampton Civic Hall.

There must have been no small degree of trepidation late last year when The Specials announced plans for a 30th anniversary re-union tour.

For a band who split 27 years ago after only two albums, and whose individual members had experienced almost no commercial success for more than two decades, hoping to fill venues of between 2-4,000 capacity at over £30 per ticket just as a recession bit may have seemed optimistic.

Not a bit of it. The dates sold out in a trice, reviews were uniformly ecstatic and the summer festival bookings rolled right in.

But seeing The Specials playing in daylight, in the open air, perhaps third or fourth down a festival bill, was never going to show them to best advantage, and although their summer performances were again well received, the current UK tour dates were definitely going to be where both band and audience were most likely to gel.

While The Specials were, and always will be, Coventry’s band, such is the enthusiasm of the Black Country to worship and enjoy once more the high priests of Two Tone, that both of the group’s Wolves Civic Hall dates are playing to packed houses despite the continued absence of founder, keyboardist and chief songwriter, Jerry Dammers, whose estrangement from his former bandmates seems as intractable as ever.

Inside, the crowd are being warmed up nicely with a mixture of reggae and ska, Dexy’s and The Jam, before the lights dim and from behind a white curtain draped across the stage we see six figures in silhouette, tuning up their instruments.

Seconds later the curtain falls, John Bradbury’s polka dot drum kit kicks in, and suddenly it’s 1979 again as Terry Hall exclaims “All you punks and all you teds, National Front and natty dreads, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads....Do The Dog”.

Our whole world’s in motion: everyone’s dancing, the band are frenzied, a camera and boom swings and turns a mere 18 inches above our heads, and four flat screens just below the ceiling relay monochrome images of the on stage action.

Barely pausing, our heroes segue into (Dawning Of A) New Era swiftly followed by Gangsters. There’s no time to catch your breath, talk about hitting the ground running! Neville Staples (Hall’s co-lead vocalist), guitarists Roddy Radiation and Lynval Golding and bassist Horace ‘Gentleman’ Panter are buzzing around the stage, it’s as if over six months in to the reformation and they’ve still got vast reserves of pent up energy to release!

There’s a three-piece brass section too, but like Dammers’ replacement on keyboards (an instrument that was such an integral part of The Specials’ distinctive sound) they’re never introduced, though all four certainly do their bit to drive proceedings along.

After the brief, slower interlude of It’s Up To You, Staples’ boundless energy rips us through Monkey Man and Rat Race. Back in the day (and the majority of tonight’s audience are old enough to remember ‘the day’), The Specials spent way too much time arguing and fighting each other, the self-destruct button that came in mid-1981 as inevitable as rising unemployment and civil unrest was under Margaret Thatcher.

But time is a great healer and maturity brings wisdom and with the triviality of those inter-band skirmishes long since acknowledged the group finally appear comfortable with themselves, each other and their iconic status. There’s a rapport and camaraderie between all six that’s palpable...and are they ever enjoying themselves!!!

Stupid Marriage and the pounding, first album crowd pleaser Concrete Jungle lead us into Friday Night/Saturday Morning and Stereotypes, a brace of somewhat earnest songs from the band’s second album, More Specials.

Man at C&A, with it’s bleak aura of nuclear paranoia, follows; it’s a forgotten classic, despite the somewhat dated lyrics. Generally though, with its references to the economic downturn, youth unemployment and racism, The Specials songs are as prescient today as when they were first performed.

Long before we arrive at a raucous version of Rudi’s Outa Jail, Staples, Golding and Radiation have discarded their jackets and ties. Not so the imperturbable Terry Hall, a picture of serenity amongst the heady exhilaration surrounding him. At times Hall retreats with his microphone and stand towards the rear of the stage to allow his bandmates full reign to buzz around in front of him, lest he be flattened in the melee.

There’s equally impressive turmoil on the dancefloor, as audience members belie their age and fuller figures to bop vigorously throughout the set. The slower Do Nothing affords a little respite, but Little Bitch (accompanied by a 2,500 strong choir), Nite Klub, Too Much Too Young and Longshot Kick De Bucket are all joyously received.

Enjoy Yourself ends the main set, but after waiting almost three decades nobody’s going home without hearing Ghost Town, the band’s final single and arguably most sublime moment (and tonight’s encore opener).

Rarely has a piece of music so aptly captured the essence of a moment quite as perfectly, and even as a museum item it’s always worth revisiting. In the midst of a recession it carries added resonance, even if overall things are nowhere as bad as in 1981. But ska was always infectious, good time party music, so Guns of Navarone returns us to positive territory before the reflective Your Wondering Now emphatically closes proceedings as Hall and Golding serenade us with the words: ”now you know this is the end”.

And they’re out. Whether there’ll be new Specials records in the future remains to be seen, but for now, this will more than do. Oh and Jerry, we’d have loved you to be missed a million miles of fun.



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