Review: The Specials at York Barbican

Frontman – Terry Hall with The Specials at York Barbican. Photographs: Simon Godley

Terry Hall is in a bad mood. We know this because he tells us so about an hour into tonight’s show. However, this much was already apparent from as early as the second song of the set, Do Nothing.

York Barbican

Tues Nov 1 2016

Barbican website

At that point Hall had thrown a couple of towels at a photographer in the photo pit prompting an immediate and premature exodus from there. And whilst the source of his displeasure was unclear, from the manner in which The Specials’ frontman and lead singer had scowled his way through the first few songs it was blindingly obvious that he was not happy.

When Terry Hall does eventually acknowledge the crowd for the first time tonight, he initially apologises that it has taken him so long to do so. It is at this juncture where he goes on to explain that he is in a foul temper.

‘Tunes that meld punk and ska with a much wider love of Jamaican music and northern soul’
‘Tunes that meld punk and ska with a much wider love of Jamaican music and northern soul’

He then proceeds to take issue with a man in the crowd before dedicating a song to him. As The Specials launch into Gangsters – the band’s debut single from 1979 and still a powerful, totemic symbol of the fight against fascism and the abuse of power – Hall says “this is for Jimmy Savile in the audience”.

Whether this is down to the poor punter resembling the notorious paedophile and sexual abuser, or because it brings back uncomfortable memories for Hall that the disgraced former DJ had actually introduced The Specials on those early Top Of The Pops appearances, is not made clear.

All about John

Specials stalwart: Lynval Golding
Specials stalwart: Lynval Golding

An original member of The Specials, Terry Hall is a man who probably has many good reasons not to be cheerful. In his own words he has “suffered from depression quite heavily for years” and has spoken openly about his struggles with this most debilitating of illnesses.

Since The Specials reformed in 2008, there have also been many changes in personnel and much emotional fallout from this. Co-founder Jerry Dammers refused to take part in (or was excluded from, depending on whose account you accept) the reunion; long-standing members Neville Staples and Roddy Radiation left the group; and then within the past 15 months both regular trombonist Rico Rodriguez and the band’s drumming powerhouse John Bradbury have sadly passed away.

However, the nucleus of the original band still survives and Hall is joined here, as always, by Lynval Golding on guitar and bassist Horace Panter.

They are complemented by a group of musicians who include in their number the relatively recent recruits Steve Cradock (of Ocean Colour Scene fame) and Gary Powell (from The Libertines), plus a horn and string section.

These dates, though, are all about John Bradbury and whilst this group of musicians do not have any new music to promote and after what is a fairly listless start, together they do eventually re-produce what is the timeless sound of The Specials.

Message just as strong

Enjoy yourself, Barbican…
Enjoy yourself, Barbican…

Ghost Town is an interesting choice of opener. The last song the original band had ever recorded (in April 1981); it is probably one of the most remarkable records to have ever reached number 1 in the singles charts.

Though not explicitly political, its stark realism is an almost nihilistic indictment of life in Thatcher’s Britain in the early part of that decade. And whilst tonight the song is given scant justice – almost cast aside in an effort to quickly get it out of the way – its message remains just as pertinent today in a post-Brexit country that is once more riven by great uncertainty, inequality and injustice.

Do Nothing and Friday Night, Saturday Morning similarly suffer from a sense of lethargy and the additional strain of Hall’s glowering presence.

But the evening suddenly crackles into life during an apocalyptic Man at C&A – a dark, eerie and turbulent blast of infused dub reggae – heralding a magnificent run of tunes that meld the central elements of punk and ska with a much wider love of Jamaican music and northern soul.

Start skanking

As fresh and as buoyant as ever
As fresh and as buoyant as ever

We readily accept Lynval Golding’s invitation to “start skanking” on Rat Race and join with him again for a poignant reading of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song in honour of John Bradbury (Golding had sung the song at Bradbury’s funeral).

“Black lives matter,” Golding proudly proclaims. He goes on to say that “if we stick together then it is better for all of us”, reinforcing the message of social and racial integration that runs right through the musical DNA of The Specials.

A Message To You, Rudy and Too Much Too Young remain as fresh and as buoyant as they ever did before The Specials finally return for a three-song encore that is spearheaded by a rousing cover of the former big band number and New Year’s Eve staple, Enjoy Yourself.

The song’s sentiments may not be something that Terry Hall can easily embrace this evening but the rest of us in a packed York Barbican tonight are more than happy to revel in the music of a band that remains just as relevant today as it was when we first heard it almost 40 years ago.