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- Posted on Apr 21st 2010 11:30AM by Kenneth Partridge
"You can stand there like parked cars if you want to," frontman Terry Hall sang, his trademark detachment bordering on flat-out disinterest. "We can't force you to enjoy this music."
Those lines, from the tune 'It's Up to You,' were in some ways inapplicable. In all corners of the tri-level Manhattan venue, Specials diehards engaged in various forms of dancing, nodding heads where space was tight, skanking where space allowed. Tuesday's performance was the first of two sold-out Terminal 5 shows -- the second is Wednesday night -- and no one, except maybe Hall, needed to be forced into enjoying anything.
At the same time, Hall's words felt wholly appropriate. They spoke to the conflict and tension at the heart of the Specials' music. Formed in Coventry, England, in 1977, this was and is a band built on contrasts. It wears black and white, sings about right and wrong and pairs ostensibly joyful music -- '60s Jamaican ska, the sound of that nation's independence -- with lyrics about poverty, violence, racism, and domestic discontent.
And yet somehow, the music is tremendously fun. Tuesday's show was a riotous dance party, even as the septet -- featuring all original members, save for svengali keyboardist and founder Jerry Dammers -- ran through a laundry list of bum-outs. Opener 'Do the Dog' deals with inter-subculture youth violence. 'Gangsters,' the Specials' breakthrough 1979 single, is a paranoid look at record-industry crooks. The starry-eyed subject of 'Hey, Little Rich Girl' heads to London, head full of dreams, and winds up shooting porn films.
'Do Nothing' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning,' highlights of Tuesday's set, lament the vapidity of youth culture and meaningless of life.
It wasn't until the courtroom skit-song 'Stupid Marriage,' in which a momentarily grinning Hall played defendant to co-frontman Neville Staple's "Judge Roughneck" character, that the band dispensed with some comic relief. Of course, it's a song about a guy who gets drunk and smashes his ex-girlfriend's window, all because she's had the audacity to settle down and start a family. "Relief" is a relative term.
Despite these and other depressing topics, the Specials inspired a manic response. The band played through the bulk of its stark 1979 debut and adventurous 1980 follow-up 'More Specials,' finding hope -- or at the very least catharsis -- amid the desperation. This was especially true during the encore, as 'Ghost Town,' an eerie reggae tune about a city of black eyes and pink slips, led into 'Enjoy Yourself,' the ultimate gather-ye-rosebuds ska tune.
The latter sounded ironic coming from Hall, who, in addition to moping his way through Tuesday's set, has been candid about his battles with depression. His sullenness was unfortunate but understandable. Luckily, it wasn't contagious.
On the far left side of the stage, well-coiffed lead guitarist Roddy "Radiation" Byers struck pigeon-toed rockabilly poses and ripped crisp Chuck Berry licks. Staple, the most energetic Special, raced back and forth, occasionally bumping into rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding, supplier of the music's steady pulse. In the background, Horace Panter and John Bradbury, the drummer and bassist, respectively, fell lockstep into taut, brawny punk-ska grooves.
"Is everybody happy?" Hall asked at one point. However he himself might have answered that question, there was no mistaking the crowd's reply.