Faithful ska fans in Southern California have been especially well-served when it comes to the short-lived but recently reunited Specials, one of few giants of the U.K.’s crucial 2-Tone scene at the turn of the ’80s.
We were already fortunate to have two opportunities to see them in 2010, when the nearly original group – minus chief songwriter and organist Jerry Dammers, who hasn’t returned since 1984 – turned in a terrific set at Coachella, preceded by a warm-up at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.
That mini-tour scarcely stopped anywhere else. Toronto was an exception. A free show in NYC’s Central Park was scrubbed over visa issues. They vowed to return in 2011, but didn’t.
Then suddenly this winter, ahead of another round of gigs in their home country, the Specials announced a stateside sojourn, launching in Chicago ahead of showcases at Austin’s SXSW music conference, then heading straight to the West Coast for dates from Vancouver to the Mexican border.
Once again, while other cities were snubbed (a bigger tour is in the works for August), we were spoiled with three more gigs: a repeat at Club Nokia on Monday, a visit to House of Blues San Diego on Tuesday and, best of all, a packed house in Pomona on Wednesday night at the Fox Theater.
Don’t take my word that it was the finest of the lot. Check with stoic vocalist Terry Hall, his hangdog face so drooped by the weight of the world that he rarely permits the slightest of grins, let alone a full-blown smile. By the end of this exhilarating 90-minute performance, the sheerest fun I’ve had at a show in years, even he couldn’t contain his stunned happiness.
“We never say this,” he mentioned before kicking off the first encore with an entrancing rendition of signature social commentary “Ghost Town,” “but you’ve absolutely been the very best so far.”
He heaped on the accolades, praising the mix, the exchange of energy, the unbridled enthusiasm pouring out of the predominantly younger crowd. So magnetized were they that dozens leapt over the barrier to the front-end floor, intent on getting closer to the source and joining the widespread, nonstop skanking.
Such youthful appeal might surprise Hall, but it shouldn’t shock anyone familiar with the local ska scene, which may not have current commercial impact yet still thrives in pockets – somewhat in Orange County, much more so in the Inland Empire, where teenage and 20-something Latinos in particular have been drawn to the sound’s punkish island exuberance and proletariat themes.
Back in the mid-’90s, when co-vocalist Neville Staple led the Specials in its first major reunion (without Dammers, of course, but also sans Hall), he and the group capitalized on California’s then-exploding Third Wave love, as did Madness, another British favorite. (The English Beat was the other tower, and arguably the finest of the bunch, but after years of ceaseless nostalgic touring, abetted by few if any true members, sometime Laguna Beach transplant Dave Wakeling has cheapened that band’s reputation considerably.)
This time, since 2008, Hall – whose drily caustic tone is as fundamental to the Specials as the fleet grooves of bassist Horace Panter and drummer John Bradbury – has been restored to the fold while typically boundless Staple sits out because of ill health. Their performances, however, haven’t suffered without his toasting. Better still, they seem far less like a sell-out (as in the ’90s) and more like a celebration building toward a rebirth.
The Fox show had to have been heartening for them, clear reason to continue touring and eventually create something new. There’s a fresh audience starving for this stuff, a Fourth Wave bubbling under the surface just waiting to reconnect to old-but-cool heroes.
You could see it in the reverence that accompanied two priceless moments in what was a rock-solid rocksteady performance from “Do the Dog” start to all-Skatalites finish. In between came all but two tunes from their seminal 1979 debut, plus a choice handful from the next year’s More Specials, and the timeless “Ghost Town,” a masterpiece that manages to evoke both the bereft aftermath of the era’s poverty- and race-fueled violence and the ticking time-bomb of bad vibes that remains.
All of it was superbly executed, with unflagging pep out of guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation on up-tempo stuff to complement dubby-deep reggae sides – and a great deal more power overall than their Elvis Costello-produced starter collection could ever convey. But those fan moments were, well, special.
First a 40-ish Gen X-er hopped on stage shortly into the out-till-dawn party cry of “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.” Security scrambled to stop him, but Hall quickly called them off and graciously greeted the guy in a form-fitting prep shirt – who proceeded to dance and mouth the words beside the singer for the rest of the song, occasionally locking moves with Lynval. “What a lovely man,” Hall said after fan and artist gave each other respectful bows.
Later, just before “A Message to Rudy,” a much younger acolyte leapt up. Security scrambled again, as did a band member or two, for this long-haired kid came armed with a harmonica, insisting he could handle the song’s opening honk.
He could indeed. Nailed it, exactly like the record. Maybe even better. Hall was blown away, though I swear he said: “That is the best harmonica we’ve ever sounded.”
Golding, who called the kid back out for hugs when the horn-dappled ditty ended, summed it up simply: “Brilliant, brilliant.” One for the books.