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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Brixton Academy
May 7th 2009

The Specials
It’s a wry, wonderfully well-thought-out, and strangely melancholic start for a set from a band noted for their high energy and upbeat performances, although let’s remember, that was around thirty years ago (when half of our party hadn’t been born).
The audience are in a high state of anticipation. And we’ve all been on the edge since last night’s opener of the five sold-out dates at the Brixton Academy was postponed at the very last minute (leaving punters arriving from all over the world, as we were told, in tears). It doesn’t matter that the reformed Specials have been touring the UK for a few weeks, gaining largely rave reviews in their wake. Those were just rehearsals; warm-ups for the main event. It’s London. And as those nice people at Ticketmaster eventually mailed to tell us (that must be what I’ve been paying all those huge booking fees for all these years), the gig is going ahead. So it’s worth the wait in the jostling queue outside, it’s worth a strange return to the hierarchy of the school playground as wimps like me stand aside to let the bovver-boy bullies get to the bar or push into the elongated line for the loos, it’s worth the frankly uninspiring support set from the Dub Pistols, and the simply tedious DJ set, increasingly reliant on calling for weary refrains of ‘Rude Boy’ from the audience to keep their interest. And I note from the forums, it was apparently even worth enduring the pickpocketing binge that sadly infected the crushed area at the front of the stage.
The Specials
The lights dim. The black curtain drops. And there, caught for a few seconds in silhouette behind a white screen, almost like a freeze-frame of Elvis’s famous ‘Jailhouse Rock’ dance sequence, are a group of slightly slumped middle-aged men, playing a mournful rendition, New Orleans funeral band tempo, of ‘Enjoy yourself’. Just for about twenty seconds – the first verse, and first chorus – “Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”. And then all havoc let loose as the screen rose and the Specials exploded into ‘Do the Dog’, at a pace which frankly seemed unsustainable for men of their years. But what they produced was a relentless high-energy show, even on the slow songs, which saw them work through a remarkable back catalogue of hits, which as you may recall, were generated in a very short period of time. There have been Specials revivals before but this was the real one, the most complete: the entire band with only one absentee being founder, inspiration and keyboard player extraordinaire, Jerry Dammers. Apparently the reunion was bankrolled by entrepreneur and football club owner Simon Jordon, whose long-standing efforts to bring them back together were frustrated by “Jerry Dammers being away with the fairies in Middle Earth spending the last 15 years remixing ‘Ghost Town’”. It’s not entirely clear what simmering resentments generated over years of infighting led to his exclusion, but it’s clearly the subject of much bitterness on both parts, leading some reviewers to condemn the whole exercise as a sham, nothing more than a nostalgic tribute band, as I read Dammers saying somewhere.
Well, if it is a tribute act then it has to be one of the best around. Frontmen Neville Staples and Lynval Golding threw back the years, and along with Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers on a better-than-I’d-ever-realised guitar, injected the songs with a real sense of energy. Drummer John Bradbury and bassist Horace Painter were tireless. There was no going through the motions. And the set was cleverly designed so that when they did tire, as all fifty-plus men must, the brass section was brought on to sustain and build on the initial drive. In the middle of it all was the lugubrious Terry Hall. Not perhaps quite as menacing as thirty years ago, but still bearing an air of perplexing detachment from it all. And more than anyone else it was Hall, with his deadpan and still angry delivery, who was able to lift some, if not all, of the songs above pastiche or self-parody to a real level of contemporary engagement. And let’s face it, songs like ‘Blank expression’, ‘Doesn’t make it alright’, ‘Too much too young’ and ‘Nite klub’ (where, as Hall spits out the words, “the beer tastes just like piss”) don’t lose their sense of relevance: they are timeless. ‘Ghost Town’, which ends the main set (before they return to finale with a breakneck rendition of ‘Enjoy yourself’) is both a historical document, recalling the bleak post-industrial landscape of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, and serving as a prescient reminder of times that are not quite as past as we comfortably-off middle-classes might like to think.
Terry Hall
Terry Hall
Not that the audience cared a jot. Downstairs was a writhing throng of bodies of all ages and sizes, only a few of whom provoked the anger of Neville Staples (and the rest of the crowd) by beer-throwing and what might have been racial baiting. Upstairs the stewards were fighting a losing battle trying to stop the dancing and ‘skanking’, as my daughter colourfully described it, although it looked more like ‘Doing the exercise machine’ to me. On our way home, we earned a proud escort from a closely-tonsured and foul-mouthed faction of the Knights of St George, neatly summing up, in their stay-pressed way, the contradictions that always surrounded the Specials, their politics and their sometimes perplexingly diverse audiences. So, hugely enjoyable though this evening was, if I had to make the choice between the two (and it wouldn’t be a difficult one), I’d go and see Jerry Dammers’ Spatial Aka Orchestra any day before returning for another Specials reunion. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Listen: The Specials on MySpace

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