By John Curley
The legendary British ska band The Specials brought their 40th anniversary tour to Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on Friday, June 14th. The band is touring behind their new album Encore, the first recording bearing The Specials’ name and including vocalist Terry Hall since the 1981 single “Ghost Town.”
Opening the evening’s proceedings was Lookman Adekunle Salami, a London-based singer-songwriter known professionally as L.A. Salami. He performs postmodern blues, folk and rock. Playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, Salami was accompanied by a bassist/backing vocalist. His 40-minute set was quite enjoyable, and he received a good reaction from the crowd. The day of the show was his bassist’s birthday, so he led the crowd in a singalong of “Happy Birthday.”
The Specials have always been a socially conscious band. Their social activism was exemplified by the signs adorning the stage wall behind the band at the Brooklyn show. There were signs encouraging activism, a peace sign, a sign for nuclear disarmament, and others with bold printing that declared “VOTE,” “WE SELL HOPE,” “RESIST” and “THINK!”
The Specials touring band on this North American leg includes founding members Terry Hall (lead vocals, keyboard), Lynval Golding (rhythm guitar, vocals), and Horace Panter (bass) as well as Nikolaj Torp Larsen (keyboards, backing vocals), Kenrick Rowe (drums), Tim Smart (trombone), Pablo Mendelssohn (trumpet) and Jake Fetcher (lead guitar). Their usual touring lead guitarist, Steve Cradock, is on the road with Paul Weller at the moment.
As soon as the house lights went down signaling The Specials’ imminent arrival to the stage, the raucous crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder on the floor of the cavernous venue, was roaring. Spotlights whirled around the stage and an air-raid siren blared as the band members walked onstage.
They opened their set with a tight version of “Man At C&A” that had the band firing on all cylinders and the audience cheering. A very spirited take on “Rat Race” followed on which the band was absolutely on fire. It received a massive reaction from the crowd. The bass and keyboard-heavy “Do Nothing” was up next and got a big cheer from the crowd. The fourth song in the set, “Vote For Me,” was the first single released from the Encore album and is about lying politicians pretending to be something they’re not. The performance of the song was fantastic, and the audience was really into it. After the song, Golding implored the crowd to “Vote Democrat!”
The bass-heavy “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” included some fine work on the keyboards by Larsen. It received an enthusiastic response from the audience. Street thugs are the target of “Embarrassed By You,” which received a spirited performance that had Hall and Golding trading off on the lead vocal. A really tight version of “Blank Expression” followed. Hall provided a great vocal on the song, and it received a big hand from the crowd. The band really seemed to be enjoying themselves during the fantastic performance of “Doesn’t Make It Alright.” It really got the audience charged up and was one of the highlights of the show.
Hall and Golding went into the past with their post-Specials band Fun Boy Three for the outstanding performance of that band’s “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum.” The horn section provided fantastic work, and it was another of the standout performances of the show. The Specials’ song appears on the Encore album, and it is about the insanity of the tactics that politicians use to keep people down. The socially conscious vibe of the show continued with the excellent cover of The Valentines’ “Blam Blam Fever” that featured great work by Hall and Golding The song also appears on Encore, and The Specials updated the lyrics of the anti-gun anthem to include a reference to the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February of last year.
The crowd exploded with the performance of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message To You, Rudy.” One of The Specials’ signature songs, it began with Golding on harmonica and featured fantastic work from the horn section. It was, without question, one of the big highlights of the night. A jaunty version of “Stereotypes” followed, and it featured a tight performance by the band, heavy drums and a nice vocal by Hall.
The British feminist and anti-racism activist Saffiyah Khan joined the band onstage for the performance of “10 Commandments,” a new song from Encore that serves as an answer to the notoriously sexist Prince Buster tune of the same name. The song was given an extended performance, and Khan waded into the crowd on the floor for a good bit of it. In the song, Khan makes declarations including “I shall not be the icing on your cake and I shall not be the candy on your arm / But I shall be seen / And I will be heard.”
The crowd, active throughout the show, gave their most enthusiastic response of the night to the fantastic performance of “Nite Klub.” It featured ferocious work by the band, the horns in particular. The crowd also cheered loudly for the excellent take on Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Dog” that followed. That performance went right into an ecstatic version of “Concrete Jungle” that drove the audience into a frenzy. An incendiary take on Toots & the Maytalls’ “Monkey Man” was up next, and it featured great work by the band that received a raucous reaction from the crowd. The high energy level in the audience continued during the tight performance of “Gangsters” as well as for the final song of the main set, “Too Much Too Young.”
The audience cheered loudly throughout the brief interval between the main set and the encore. When the band returned, they were lined up at the front of the stage. Larsen was on accordion and Rowe on percussion for a wonderfully loose performance of “Breaking Point.” The crowd loved it. “Ghost Town,” their 1981 single that spent three weeks atop the UK singles charts, followed. It’s a sparse, atmospheric song that comments on the high unemployment and hopelessness gripping many British cities at the time. It received a great performance to which the audience gave a big reaction.
At this point, the band welcomed a special guest, Manuel Oliver, to the stage. Oliver, the father of Joaquin Oliver, one of the high-school students killed in the Parkland, Florida mass shooting last year, spoke to the crowd about fighting America’s gun violence with activism and he implored the members of the audience to join the fight. Oliver is also a big fan of The Specials. He spoke about his love of the band’s music and how he passed that love onto his late son. Following his remarks, as if to prove his fandom, Oliver stage dived into the crowd. It was quite something to witness.
The night of music concluded with a cover of The Skatalites “You’re Wondering Now” for which the band brought Khan back onstage. Hall had the crowd sing the final bits of the song as the band grooved onstage, and he teased the audience for not being loud enough. The crowd then roared with appreciation as the band left the stage.
The Specials’ North American tour concludes with two shows in Toronto on June 18th and 19th. They are playing four shows at the Coventry Cathedral Ruins in their hometown of Coventry, England next month and will be playing festivals in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe in the summer. Following a touring break, they return to the road for shows in Germany and The Netherlands in November. Full tour dates and ticket-purchase links can be found at https://www.thespecials.com/live.
The Specials’ setlist was as follows:
Man At C&A
Vote For Me
Friday Night, Saturday Morning
Embarrassed By You
Doesn’t Make It Alright
The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum (Fun Boy Three cover)
Blam Blam Fever (The Valentines cover)
A Message To You, Rudy (Dandy Livingstone cover)
10 Commandments (featuring Saffiyah Khan)
Do The Dog (Rufus Thomas cover)
Monkey Man (Toots & the Maytals cover)
Too Much Too Young
You’re Wondering Now (The Skatalites cover, with Saffiyah Khan)