Four decades later, the Specials still aim to please (and provoke)

The Specials at the Novo June 1st, 2019. Photo by Michelle Shiers

Four decades since their first heyday, English 2-tone ska revivalists The Specials were back Saturday night at the Novo, with a close-to-original lineup and a literal and figurative platform from which to express their political stances once again.

Original lead singer Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter, and guitarist Lynval Golding, were joined by keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, trumpeter Pablo Mendelssohn, guitarist Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene, Paul Weller), trombonist Tim Smart and drummer Kenrick Rowes. The Specials released their new album “Encore” this past February — a collection of new songs (and a couple covers) that seem to both bring on the skank and maintain righteousness where they should. Together, the group performed through their catalog as if all those decades had not passed at all, opening with “Man at C&A,” during which Golding chanted “No more war! Nuclear war!” Then the band went into the sing-along bouncer “Rat Race” from 1980’s “More Specials.”

Though not the most entertaining front man to watch, Hall still seemed passionate about what he was singing as did Golding (who had apparently taken ill a couple nights before, which forced postponement of their Anaheim show). Behind the band was a display of protest signs, reminding us that the Specials are still firmly rooted in their original era of activism.  Some of their signs said “vote,” “think,” “resist” and another with a photo of a rifle saying “make it stop.”

Of course, it would not have been a Specials concert without a mature (largely ex-pat) audience donning pork pie hats and Fred Perry, or without a few nasty comments aimed at Trump. Truth be told, it seems the Specials are still talking about the same socio-economic issues as back in the late ’70s. Not much seems to have changed. We are all still dancing to their music and we are all still pretty angry with the state of our nations. Golding appropriately sang “We never fought for freedom for nasty little brutes like you / to undo the work we do” on “Embarrassed By You.”

Fans could be heard noting that the band were doing a good job of playing the songs people ‘really’ wanted to hear intertwined with a couple deeper cuts and a few new ones. Many of the audience members had been waiting decades to see the Specials live and some even had their kids in tow, also in littler pork pie hats, hoping to revive ska yet again. They performed “Fright Night, Saturday Morning,” “Blank Expression” and “A Message To You, Rudy,” all of which got the audience moving fast. The Specials’ new collaborator, model/activist Saffiyah Khan, joined the band for “10 Commandments,” one of the more memorable tracks from the new record.

The Specials are no strangers to covers and included a few in their set, still keeping them as their own. “Blam Blam Fever” by the Valentines, “Do the Dog” by Rufus Thomas and “Monkey Man” by Toots & the Maytals were favorites along with “Gangsters” and “Too Much Too Young” closing their main set.

Most importantly about the Specials is that they seemingly understand their place as a band of nostalgia. They knew what their audience wanted, they knew what they wanted to provoke, and somehow it all happened seamlessly with a newly reignited fire of outspoken tolerance — trying to be both optimistic and realistic especially in this era of Brexit, Trump and Black Lives Matter.

The Specials returned for an encore starting with new song “Breaking Point,” 1981’s “Ghost Town,” and ended the night with their 1979 cover of the Skatalites’ “You’re Wondering Now” — a perfect closer with the lyrics “You’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end.” As the sold-out crowd of rude boys and girls may have grown up into rude men and women, time has proven the Specials are still pretty special.

Supporting the Specials was London artist Lookman Adekunle Salami, known as L.A. Salami.

Photos by Michelle Shiers