The Specials are back in Wolverhampton. The pioneering two-tone band reformed in 2008 and played Wolverhampton in 2009. They must have liked their reception because now they’re now back again for a two night run in the city (whoops, nearly called it a town!) and I am privileged to be at the first gig! Tonight you get really great value for money too, with a lengthy set from headliners, the Specials, plus two excellent support bands which blend well with the style of The Specials.
First up is West Midlands band ‘the sound of small town soul’ (Sutton Coldfield, I believe, well that’s what their website says), Stone Foundation. They are a seven-piece with brass, guitars and organ, playing material highly influenced by 1960’s soul and R & B and also by Dexys Midnight Runners, one of whose numbers they play. They are pretty tight musically and exciting too, with lead singer Neil Jones having a powerful voice and really giving of his all. Unfortunately not many people get to hear them as they have the ‘graveyard slot’, coming on virtually as the doors to the Civic open. They also have an album, ‘Three Shades of Stone Foundation’ which came out this year.
Next up is By the Rivers, a six-piece reggae band from Leicester. What immediately strikes you is how young they are. Lead singer Nile Barrow is 21, according to their website, but many of the band are obviously quite a bit younger. However, don’t expect a bunch of amateur bedroom strummers (that is not meant to be rude, by the way), as these guys are really proficient and they know how to put on a show and they go down a bomb with the crowd, who by this time are getting darned excited in anticipation of The Specials. The music is more a white version of reggae, maybe a bit UB40-ish, but very enjoyable.
At last at nine, with the hall packed to the gunnels, The Specials come on to a projected backdrop of memorable people and events over the past 40 years or so (quite rightly all the politicians featured get resounding boos from the audience!. After all, The Specials deliver, unlike the politicians). It is always good to see a classic band performing with most of its original members intact and this is the case with The Specials, the only very notable absence being composer and keyboard player, Jerry Dammers. Their acrimonious separation has been well documented, but that is band politics for you!
The band storm straight into a riotous rendition of ‘Gangsters’. What strikes you straight away is their energy, as they hurtle around the stage. Well, most of them, except the drummer, John Bradbury, who has to keep to his seat …….and, err, Terry Hall! Terry stands impassive in his suit as always and provides a contrast as the others shoot off in all directions. Good old Terry also has a (not so sly) fag or two in the proceedings too. However, the contrast of the personnel and the changing lead vocalists are part of what makes The Specials,,..,,well, special!
The Specials songs are pretty varied in style and delivery and this keeps you interested as they plough through their repertoire of 25 songs, including gems like ‘Rat Race’, ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’, ‘Too Much Too Young’, ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘ A Message to you, Rudy’ (which they dedicated to the three men killed in the Birmingham riots).
My only real criticism of tonight is why does it have to be so blooming loud, particularly the bass and drums? The Specials music can be raucous and danceable, but it is also subtle in terms of lyrics, melody and instrumentation (take ‘Ghost Town’, for example) and this rather gets lost in the row. Not sure why they bothered having a string section accompany them on numbers like ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, when the strings are drowned in the noise. However, the show is still pretty enjoyable and energetic throughout, with great lighting and backdrop, and of course great songs and performances.
Singing and clapping along by the audience is a big feature of the evening, as the band crash through their lengthy set of hits. For example, the band gets the audience to sing the quiet intro to ‘Nite Klub’ before they launch in to start the number proper. There is a big contrast between the balcony seats and the packed hall downstairs, who pogo and sway along through most of the show. Some of the audience upstairs do attempt to get going, but are refrained by Security staff, no doubt with health and safety in mind!
The high octane show ends with two encores, inevitably featuring what is probably their best song, ‘Ghost Town’.
Gangsters; Dawning of a New Era; Do the Dog; It’s Up to You; Monkey Man; Blank Expression; Too Hot; Doesn’t Make it Alright; Rat Race; Hey Little Rich Girl; Stupid Marriage; Concrete Jungle; International Jet Set; Friday Night, Saturday Morning; Do Nothing; Stereotype; Man at C & A; Pearl’s Cafe; A Message to you, Rudy; Nite Klub; Too Much Too Young; Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than you Think; [Encore 1} Ghost Town; [Encore 2] Little Bitch; You’re Wondering Now.
Photos and Review – John Bentley