It’s fitting that the Specials chose Los Angeles as the location for their first reunion shows in the United States in nearly three decades. Southern California has long proven to be the American ska scene’s ground zero, spawning the likes of Sublime, No Doubt, Operation Ivy and Rancid, among others — all of whom were both clearly influenced by the U.K. “2 Tone” legends; Specials lead singer Terry Hall even co-wrote the hit “Our Lips Are Sealed” by archetypal L.A. band the Go-Gos.
So when the band hit the stage for a sold-out show at downtown Los Angeles’ Club Nokia last night, it felt like a homecoming. While missing founding member Jerry Dammers, the band otherwise featured all original members, save Dammers’ keyboardist replacement and a crack three-piece horn section. And despite the gap in years since the Specials’ last U.S. tour, when the band kicked into “Do the Dog” as its opening number, it was clear nothing had been lost in the interim. From the first note, everyone in the nearly 10-piece band played with a manic intensity that wouldn’t suggest its members were in their fifties. For the majority of the sprawling, 22 song set — drawn from the band’s classic first two albums and assorted singles — most numbers careened full stop into the next with startling, infectious velocity. If only all reunion tours felt so vital and fresh. Right off the bat, it was clear this was the real deal and not a money grab.
“Do the Dog” was an appropriate starter, its opening lines — “All you punks and all you teds/National Front and natty dreads/Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads/Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead” — sounded like a call to arms for the multiracial tribes assembled, and a prescient reflection on the audience’s behavior. By the fourth song, “Up To You,” the crowd had grown unruly in their excitement — a little too authentic to the spirit of the original punks. “If you spit anymore, I’ll dive down and break your head,” Hall exclaimed with brimming vitriol at the start of the fourth song, “Up To You”; the rough atmosphere continued, however, with fights breaking out sporadically and the stage repeatedly invaded by audience members. Then again, the hectic vibes radiating through the venue proved this was no mere nostalgia trip: it only reflected the continued significance of the music’s relentless riddims and inner-city tension.
Any drama, however, didn’t detract from the incredible chemistry and musical interplay between its nattily attired members: ska is a music built on precision and control, and here the Specials triumphed, moving from stop-on-a-dime uptempo grooves to deeper, dubby textures effortlessly. Drummer John Bradbury thrilled with machine-gun rimshots and hyperactive hi-hat; guitarists Roddy Byers and Lynval Golding added strikingly soulful solos to songs like “Blank Expression”; and bassist Horace Panter’s crisply sinister basslines never faltered. The two frontmen, however, proved a study in crucial contrasts, meanwhile. Toaster Neville Staple was all gleeful dance power, skanking constantly and hyping the crowd with glee; Terry Hall, meanwhile, evoked a bluebeat Johnny Rotten, roiling with nervous energy and sarcasm, gripping the mike stand aggressively and even pulling back from the spotlight at times. Dammer’s absence proved most notable in songs from the band’s second album, 1980’s More Specials: on record, tracks like “Stereotype/Stereotypes, Pt. 2” featured an ironic muzak influence and studio trickery, all of which was dispensed here in lieu of sweaty immediacy.
Seeing the Specials live drove home the artfulness of the band’s songwriting, which could be potentially lost in the performance’s driving power: hearing a crowd sing in unison the choruses to classics like “A Message To You, Rudy” conveyed just how indelible their hooks remain. Instead of seeming dated, the songs’ themes came off timeless — if anything, more relevant today than when they were released in the ’80s. The nuclear-war paranoia of “Man At C & A” and the economic-doldrums dub dirge “Ghost Town” (which made for a truly affecting encore) to the growing pains of shifting racial attitudes (nearly every song) could be ripped from today’s headlines. “Sorry it took a lifetime to get us back here,” Golding said midway through the set, and the apology felt apt: another 30 years is truly too long to wait for music so trenchant and powerful, no matter when it’s played.
“Do The Dog”
“(Dawning Of A) New Era”
“It’s Up To You”
“Hey, Little Rich Girl”
“Doesn’t Make It Alright”
“Friday Night, Saturday Morning”
“Stereotype/Stereotypes, Pt. 2”
“Man at C & A”
“A Message To You, Rudy”
“Too Much Too Young”
“You’re Wondering Now”
“Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”