The Specials were yet another band that I was introduced to via Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again. Despite their popularity in the UK, they'd never crossed my radar in the US-American heartland before that. With an unexpectedly strong new album at #1 in the UK charts, they are apparently back in the spotlight. This show was originally scheduled for the Columbiahalle, which is already a decently-sized venue, but it was relocated to a large sports arena in Mauerpark.
Artist: The Specials
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 April 2019
Opening Act: Swutscher
01. Man at C&A
01. Man at C&A
02. Rat Race
03. Do Nothing
04. Vote for Me
05. Friday Night, Saturday Morning
06. Embarrassed by You
07. Blank Expression
08. Doesn't Make It Alright
09. The Lunatics [Fun Boy Three song]
10. Blam Blam Fever [The Valentines cover] →
11. A Message to You, Rudy [Dandy Livingstone cover]
13. 10 Commandments [with Saffiyah Khan]
14. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys [The Equals cover]
15. Nite Klub
16. Do the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover] →
17. Concrete Jungle
18. Monkey Man [Toots & The Maytals cover]
20. Little Bitch
21. Too Much Too Young
22. Breaking Point
23. Ghost Town
24. Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) [Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra cover]
25. You're Wondering Now [The Skatalites cover, with Saffiyah Khan]
Despite the advertised start time of 8pm, German 7-piece Swutscher came on stage 15 minutes early. They brought a bro-heavy attitude and played generic and sloppy barroom rockabilly and 90s macho-rock. It seemed like the only reason they were opening for The Specials was because they had a saxophonist and a lot of members on stage. The vocals were so distractingly bad that any good elements were completely overshadowed. They even did a messy version of The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" in German, but the vocals were so terribly yelled that I couldn't understand them.
Then the strangest thing happened: they started playing a motorik beat and went into a long, psychedelic, pseudo-Krautrock jam. The song had a totally different groove and feel. It would've been awesome but for the vocals. They followed that with another long jam in a more classic rock style done surprisingly well. Why weren't all the songs like that? The last two songs hardly seemed like the same band.
The Specials eventually arrived with eight members: guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, vocalist Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter, lead guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe, trombonist Tim Smart, and trumpeter Pablo Mendelssohn. Notably absent were Jerry Dammers (who has avoided all reunions), Neville Staple, Roddy Radiation, and John Bradbury (who died in 2015). Three original members still in the fold ain't too bad after forty years.
The band wasted no time getting down to business. They started with a few classic tracks and then "Vote for Me" from Encore (2019), which was given a bit of an extended dub treatment. They continued in the pattern of mixing early songs with the new ones, including several covers from both periods. The new album has a new version of "The Lunatics", originally performed by the splinter group Fun Boy Three, which was performed quite successfully. They even brought out Saffiyah Khan to reprise her role on Encore's "10 Commandments".
The Specials have always been quite upfront about their politics, and I was impressed by how relevant the old songs still are as well as the quality of the new work. Thankfully, the mix was great and the vocals were loud and clear, so I could hear almost every word. I was also impressed by how solid the performance was: if you ignored all of their socially-conscious lyrics and just focused on the grooves, it still would've been a great show. Panter's bass was the star, holding down the beat and carrying much of the musical structure. He was frequently locked in step with Rowe's drums but yet never felt tied down.
Most of the music kept close to the two-tone standard, but there were a few deviations into some deep and heady dub jams. In addition to "Vote for Me", "Stereotype" and "Ghost Town" (introduced with the single word "Brexit") were given a similar treatment. For these songs (and "10 Commandments"), Hall moved to a rack with some combination of keyboard, synthesizer, and/or reverb unit.
I was amused that the band only played songs from their first two albums, contemporaneous singles, and their new album. Admittedly, that is their best work, and most of albums in between were either all covers or recorded with substantially different lineups. But then why did they perform Dammers' "Little Bitch", one of their only songs with a conspicuously less progressive message?
This show felt like a party. It was high-energy and people were dancing enthusiastically. (There was even a crowdsurfer at one point!) The band played for almost two hours and almost exclusively played uptempo numbers. It's always cool when an old band can put out new work that almost matches their best and then back it up with a successful tour.
[The Specials with protest signs.]
The Specials: A-