Along with Madness and The Beat (known in the US as The English Beat), The Specials were one of the defining bands of the ska revival of the late 1970s in England, which saw the bands combining elements of the Caribbean sounds of reggae and rocksteady with the influences of the nascent punk genre which was taking over the British music scene of the time. Centered around 2 Tone Records, the label run by Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers, the bands defined their own distinctive sound and aesthetic (the black and white checkerboard design and rude boy fashion). The Specials themselves only released two albums in their initial run (1979’s The Specials and 1980’s More Specials) before splitting (with some band members remaining to record a third album as Special AKA while others went on to form the band Fun Boy Three), but those two albums had a massive influence on generations of musicians to follow. The band has reunited with various lineups over the years, recording several additional albums in the late 90s and early 2000s, but a reunion in 2007 for the Glastonbury Festival brought together most of the band’s classic lineup and has continued (with some additional personnel changes) to this day. On the band’s latest US tour, they came to the Baltimore Soundstage, where they played a rousing show to a nearly sold out crowd.
One thing notable about the band’s live performance is the manner in which their personalities show through. Frontman Terry Hall spends much of the show hanging back on the stage nearly out of the spotlight, the opposite of the dynamic role played by most rock singers, but more than makes up for it with his distinctive voice. Guitarist and singer Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter filled in for the more energetic stage antics, each fully owning his side of the stage. Among the newer members were guitarist Steve Cradock (of Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller’s band) and Danish keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen. The newest member of the band, drummer Gary Powell, joined just last year after the unfortunate passing of John Bradbury.
The band made the somewhat unusual move of opening the night with their most well-known song, “Ghost Town.” The non-album single, which served as the band’s last release before splitting in 1981, was named “Single of the Year” by several of the largest music publications of the time, and served to cement the band’s legacy. From there, they went into a set of songs drawn from the More Specials period, including “Friday Night, Saturday Morning,” “Do Nothing,” “Stereotype,” and the non-album single “Rat Race.” While Hall took leave of the stage for a bit, Golding led the band in a stunning cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
When Hall returned, the band was far from finished. Next up was a large portion of the debut album – nine of fourteen tracks (along with the band’s debut, non-album single “Gangsters”) – played with all of the frenetic energy of the originals. Songs like “Doesn’t Make It Alright,” “Concrete Jungle,” and the band’s covers of Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Dog” and Toots & the Maytals’ “Monkey Man.” The Specials have always been a band with a political message, but Hall engaged in one of his few direct statements of the night dedicating their cover of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message to You, Rudy” to Donald Trump (“Stop your messing around / Better think of your future / Time you straighten right out / Creating problems in town”).
The band closed the set with one more song from More Specials, their cover of Tommy Dorsey’s “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).” They returned to the stage for a three-song encore including two covers of songs by The Skatalites – the instrumental “Guns of Navarone” and “You’re Wondering Now” – as well as a version of “We Have All the Time in the World,” the John Barry/Hal David-composed title track from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (originally performed by Louis Armstrong), which they dedicated to Bradbury.
New York-based ska/reggae band The Far East opened the show.