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The Specials @ Club Nokia 4/15/10

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It’s a good thing the Specials made it into Los Angeles before the volcanic ash cloud grounded all flights from the UK, or there would be a squadron of California boot boys swimming across the ocean to beat the crap out of Iceland right now. The atmosphere inside an unusually tightly-clamped Club Nokia fifteen minutes before showtime was tense and hot, as hundreds of patrons were ushered up to the balcony due to overcrowding downstairs, only to find that every seat had been filled. Lots of them looked like they might have a go with the security, or each other, as they roamed the aisles, ready to eat someone alive in order to take their spot. But as the band took the stage and hit the opening notes of “Do The Dog”, all the tension diffused as the balcony began to bounce up and down and people partied where they stood.

Though various after-projects have appeared since their split, the Specials haven’t performed in America since 1981. This reunion lineup is missing organist Jerry Dammers, who founded the band as well as the record label 2-Tone, introducing the world to the (English) Beat, the Selecter and Madness and spearheading the British ska scene at the end of the seventies. But all the other key players - vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staples, guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy “Radiation” Byers, drummer Horace Panter and bassist John Bradbury - are in place, and sounding as tight and wired as one could hope.

This is the band that laid the basic template for how ska should be performed by non-Jamaicans in the post-punk age: snappy, sarcastic and surging with momentum. “Ain’t he cute/ no he ain’t,” Hall tells a young mother showing off her newborn in “Too Much Too Young”. “He’s just another burden on the welfare state.” Despite this and other topical references to dole-era Britain, the themes still feel relevant - it was hard not to think of the anti-racist anthem “Doesn’t Make It Alright” while watching footage of the National Socialist rally the weekend after the gig. They can be as tightly wound as James Brown’s band, melodic lines weaving through the percussive stabs, but can also explode on cue like the early Clash. It’s some of the most irresistible dance music ever created, and while their fellow class-of-’79 alumni Public Image Ltd. had faced a listless, immobilized audience two days earlier in the same room (my attempts to pogo were met with derisive laughter from the cooler-than-thous in their twenties standing next to me), this was that rarest of LA gigs that inspired people to move their butts en masse.

Though Bradbury has to take a seat for part of the show, the rest are flinging themselves around the stage with the abandon of old, giving one of the most physically energetic shows I’ve ever seen. For nearly two hours, they run through virtually everything they know (the only thing I was waiting for and didn’t get was “Guns Of Navarrone”), pausing now and then to politely ask the crowd to calm down. Apparently those tensions didn’t diffuse completely down in the pit. “It’s not 1979 anymore, it’s 2010”, pleads Staples, while Hall - now more than ever, a dead ringer for Lurch from the Addams Family - is more direct. “You must stop gobbing, or else I’m coming down there to smash your fucking face.” So much for mellowing in their old age.

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But the bait is not taken, and the show continues without major incident. “I’m sorry it took us a lifetime to get back here,” apologizes Staples, “we’re a bunch of lazy old bastards.” “Meaning YOU,” scoffs Hall in response. We can only hope it doesn’t take a second lifetime for them to make another round. Boot boys need a good time like everyone else.