Tonight was always going to be one of those memorable gigs that I'd look forward to with excitement and then look back on fondly. The Specials are after all one of my favourite three bands of all-time. There is no chance to see either The Smiths or The Clash; and with the gig being held at, in my opinion, the UK’s best live music venue - you could say this is as good as it gets. The evening is about to get even better as I'd arranged to meet guitarist Roddy Radiation Byers and bass player Sir Horace Gentleman for a quick face to face radio interview between the sound check and the gig. It almost goes pear shape - Roddy suggests we meet in the Apsley Cottage, the pub next to the stage door. I'm sat at the bar while Roddy, Horace and his wife Clare are stood outside. Luckily I spot them on a scouting mission outside. "Can we do this back at the hotel?" asks Horace. So there I am, surreally in the back of a cab with two of my school boy rock 'n roll heroes. "Watch your wallet tonight" warns Horace - gangs of pickpockets have been following The Specials around. He really is a gentleman in more than just name. You can hear a podcast of Roddy and Horace on Pure 107.8FM here:
There is no support for the show just a selection of music chosen by the band. We are treated to The Clash, some Jamaican dub and Uptown Top Ranking. I can't help thinking the band have missed a trick. Back in 2009 when they played the Manchester Apollo for the first time since reforming, Kid British provided the support and Terry Hall's son DJ’d from the stage between the two sets. Tonight the band took to the stage behind a giant white fabric screen, which dramatically fell to the floor revealing Hollywood style SPECIALS back drop as they launched into ‘Do The Dog’. The build up to tonight’s show doesn't have the same sense of theatre, as the band walk on and modestly acknowledge the 'Roooode Boys' chant. However, there is still a real sense of anticipation, as it approached 9 o'clock and show time. Any whistles and bells are only a side show, this is The Specials.
Jerry Dammers was the creative mastermind behind The Specials and the catalyst that launched and drove 2 Tone Records and the ska revival. He is also the only original Special not to be involved with the reformed band. Sadly the six have now become five as poor health has seen Neville Staple leave the fold. The charismatic MC did more than jump around, yelling "Bernie Rhodes knows don't argue" and wear his Judge Roughneck wig. He was an important part of the energy The Specials created. These are big shoes to fill - so step forward Lynval Golding. Lynval is happy to take on not just the toasting duties from his fellow Jamaican, but the role of chief party starter too. "Keep Skanking" he urges. No worries there, from the mosh pit in the stalls to the seats in the circle - the whole place is on their feet and bouncing. Lynval shows off some fancy foot work while he plays guitar, dancing along the front of the stage.
He is the perfect counter balance for Terry Hall's dead pan cynicism. He may have been 2 Tone's pin up heart throb, but you get the impression he is actually painfully shy. Half a dozen songs into the set and Terry confiscates an inflatable flamingo. “Who brought that in, give it here” he demands like a grumpy science teacher commandeering contraband material. “Every time I look out I see this and I think I’m at a fucking hen night, can we stop?” He wanders off backstage with the offensive bird “You’re not seeing this again”. He mutters “Goodnight” to it and he’s still venting his disapproval as Lynval tries to introduce ‘Monkey Man' “Butlins mate, Butlins” Clearly not impressed Terry is still berating the inflatable flamingo’s owner after they finish the number, “..Whatever next, inflatable bananas?” I don’t know who bought the long legged pink day-glo abomination to the gig but by the wonders of twitter I know Louise McCoy from Stoke took it home as a most unusual souvenir.
The Specials are joined by a string quartet, they add a wonderful haunting element to‘Ghost Town’, and a bass section with occasional percussion accompaniment from trumpet/trombone player Jon Read on bongos. It's a well oiled machine - on bass Sir Horace politely bows to the crowd as he accepts the adulation after each number. He works his way around the stage as if he's checking in on each of his band colleagues; it's as if he's checking in to make sure they are OK. Whilst, Roddy Radiation and John Bradbury have that too cool for school swagger about them.
The encore starts with Dylan's ‘Maggies Farm’, which was the b-side for ‘Do Nothing’. At the time it was Jerry's subtle swipe at the Thatcher government and you get the feeling it's included in the set as a reference to her legacy. ‘Enjoy yourself’ and ‘Your Wondering Now’ bring the gig to a close. It's been an amazing experience, but with my hand on my heart, I'd have to admit that I thought it didn't quite hit the heights of their previous Apollo performances. But I don't want to be churlish; the bar was set incredibly high. Maybe it's a combination of familiarity and the extra spice of Neville's big personality (despite Lynval's valiant efforts). All that said, I wouldn't miss this for the world, another amazing Specials gig. I don't know how many more reunion tours we can look forward to. We've dropped from six to five out of seven original members and as Roddy told me he's amazed it's lasted this long.
But I’m hoping for even more Specials. As Sir Horace told me "We have nothing in common as people... but the one thing that binds us together are these two dozen tunes, most of which we didn't write… Somehow, when we are on a stage with our instruments, something amazing happens.”
If you get the chance to see the Specials again take it and enjoy yourself. Let's hope it's not later than you think.
Review by Paul Holloway
Photos by Melanie Smith - www.mudkissphotography.co.uk
(Paul Holloway presents The Guest List (Tuesdays & Thursdays 7pm) & Fuzzbox (Fridays 10pm) on Stockport’s radio station Pure 107.8FM)
Listen anywhere www.pureradio.org.uk