The Specials at the Vic Theatre | Photos and review
One band does not a movement make, but the bulk of the glory that was 2 Tone rests on the shoulders of the Specials, a touchstone whose influence has stretched exponentially farther than the band’s relatively brief original tenure and limited recorded output. For the Specials, Jamaican music was the medium and punk the method, but the message—a pointed and sometimes poignant mix of independence, resilience and, above all else, racial unity—was paramount. When Ted Leo wondered “Where Did All the Rude Boys Go?” he was pining as much for that lost era of political activism as he was for the personalities involved.
One personality in particular, Specials founder and primary songwriter Jerry Dammers, has been more or less missing in action since the band first broke up, back in 1984. Another, singer Neville Staple, once a stable element of the band’s occasionally shifting lineup, was similarly not on stage with the Specials at a sold-out Vic Monday night, though he has participated in previous Specials reunions. If the bulk of the band was present—singer Terry Hall, singer/guitarist Lynval Golding, guitarist Roddy Radiation and the ace rhythm section of bassist Horace Panter and drummer John Bradbury—the show still lacked a certain raison d’etre. The group celebrated its 30th anniversary (give or take) back in 2009. But at the Vic, the band made no effort to recontextualize its music for a new century. The set lacked any new material, sticking to its beloved catalog of classics and classic covers.
And yet, those songs often proved more than enough to support this exercise in nostalgia. With the crowd singing, chanting and shouting along to every word, the group blazed through the likes of “Gangsters,” “A Message to You, Rudy,” “Monkey Man” and “Guns of Navarone,” choice old-school ska covers whose 2 Tone reinterpretations have become as iconic as the originals. And as for the Specials’ own songs, “Doesn’t Make It Alright,” “Stereotype,” “Do Nothing” and in particular the hypnotic “Ghost Town” slinked, shimmered and glowed, even several decades removed from the specific context of racial strife and class conflict in Great Britain that inspired them.
With the droll Hall largely standing still at center stage, the rest of the band, particularly the propulsive trio of Panter, Radiation and Golding, hurled, skanked and mugged their way around him, like hyperactive satellites bouncing in frenetic orbit. Ending with the crowd singing along, unaccompanied, to the strains of the Skatalites’ “You’re Wondering Now,” the Specials left the audience with a glimpse of what this band must have been like at its peak, how joyful, how inspiring, how galvanizing, how righteous its sound and stance. If we’re a long way past that, well, that’s not to say we don’t still have a long way to go, and any reminder of that is a good thing indeed.