“It's not 1977, it's 2010,” chided The Specials' Lynval Golding. The guitarist wasn't reminding the crowd of young and old Anglophiles (and celebrities, which included Gavin Rossdale, Gwen Stefani, No Doubt band mate Tony Kanal, Reel Big Fish singer Aaron Barrett and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) to check its collective watch. He was reprimanding a few unruly audience members for making trouble, which had less to do with the awfulness of Club Nokia — great acoustics, but otherwise a human zoo with general admission mayhem, both on the floor and in the balcony — than with the awesomeness of the sold-out show, The Specials' first proper U.S. performance in over 30 years.
Unlikely how a '70s ska band from across the pond can elicit this much excitement stateside. But when it's a fun, exuberant, generally life-affirming and, well, special bunch as this, it's hard not to act squirrelly. Big props to the handful of good kids who managed to climb the stage and dance.
Golding, singers Terry Hall and Neville Staple, guitarist Roddy Byers, bassist Horace Panter and drummer John Bradbury were joined by Nikolaj Torp-Larsen filling in for keyboardist and founding member Jerry Dammers, who opted out of the reunion tour. Nearly all dressed in suave suits and the requisite porkpie hats (and Byers' very un-ska bolo tie), the seven played a best-of set list, going from their first, BBC-banned hit “Too Much Too Young” to their breakup swan song “Ghost Town.”
You can hear some of Byers' best work on “Rat Race,” the group's anti-collegiate stab at higher education, which is just as telling in this economy; might as well be 1977. If you preferred their lighter side, no two-legged being can resist dancing to their version of “Monkey Man,” while the doo-wop ditty “Hey, Little Rich Girl,” which brought out a three-man horn section, is up their with Motown. (Speaking of covers, “Enjoy Yourself” was originally written by Carl Sigman, father of none other than former LA Weekly publisher Mike Sigman). Every band worth its beer has penned some sort of nighttime ode about never wanting to the sun to rise, and The Specials' “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” (no doubt on the agenda for their Friday night slot at Coachella), with Hall wishing he had “lipstick on my shirt, instead of piss stains on my shoes,” is particularly poetic.
Sad sack Hall is a peculiar guy to watch. If you didn't know him and his openness about his bouts with depression and suicide, you'd think he couldn't be bothered or couldn't crack a smile if he were tickled all over. Hall doesn't exactly radiate joy and warmth, standing mostly motionless in the back of the stage (he curiously disappeared during the entirety of “Concrete Jungle,” leaving the vocal duties to Byers). But he tries. It's the little moments, whether he's knocking down the mike stand, bobbing his head, lifting his pants and pretending to plié or blowing kisses. There were some heartfelt thank-yous and signs of a sense of humor. He threw spoons and tea packets at the crowd because he said he desperately wanted to get us presents. And he even jokingly invited everyone to a hotel after-party. “But not you,” he pointed at the trouble makers. “You're too ugly.”
If Hall is the band's attitude, Golding is its spirit, running across the stage with boundless energy as if simultaneously carrying his guitar and The Specials' torch. Long may it burn.