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- Rock City, Nottingham »
In little over thirty minutes time The Specials are due onstage for the second night of their two-day jaunt in Nottingham, yet still Rock City's doors remain firmly closed. Looking around the increasingly agitated throng, one suspects nothing short of a riot could ensue if these 1500+ unhappy faces aren't allowed inside soon. With an unusually high (for an event of this nature) police presence on standby, it seems there's more people than me expecting this powder keg to ignite and explode in an instant. Allegedly one of the band is ill and in need of urgent medical attention; fortunately, by 9pm, parity is restored and those doors are finally unbolted. Sadly, this means support act Pama International don't get to play this evening, not that the majority of the shaven-headed, Fred Perry and Sta-press clad ensemble would probably have noticed, or cared for that matter.
Rewind the clock an hour or so and DiS is sat in a bar around the corner from Rock City. As the room fills with fifty-year-old skins wearing their best braces and polished Doctor Martens, it feels like a scene from Shane Meadows' This Is England. "I saw them three times back in the day around 1979 and 1980" says one, his intimidating appearance soon dissipated by his engaging conversation. "At the time, no one was really aware just how culturally significant this band would be. We were all football, beer, music and girls back then, and The Specials were our soundtrack." Quite. Another, who's made the trip from South Yorkshire, introduces his 14-year-old son who tells me he can sing all the words to every song they've ever recorded, b-sides and all, then promptly indulges in a spot of 'Name That Tune'. It's certainly one of the most entertaining pre-gig atmospheres we've encountered in a long, long time, and even though one old-timer's boast that "if it weren't for The Specials there'd be no Less Than Jake or Rancid" falls on deaf ears, their impact over the past three decades has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Having first come to prominence during a time of racial tension engineered by the National Front, it's perhaps somewhat ironic that in the current climate of Nick Griffin megalomania and a culture that blames everything on immigration, The Specials' place in popular music has become more important than ever before. Despite being penned in 1979, the lyrics of 'Concrete Jungle' for example take on a whole new meaning today, its subject stressing "I have to carry a knife because there's people threatening my life" turning into "I'm being chased by the national front" before its chorus insisting "It ain't safe on the streets". Although delivered in the early part of the set to a rowdy, enthusiastic reception, its sentiments hit hard, duly emphasised by vocalist Terry Hall's simple request to "stop and think about what you've just heard" afterwards.
Of course one of the main reasons why this tour has been so successful has been The Specials' insistence that no new material would be aired, instead solely concentrating on their two studio albums and singles ("unfinished business" was how co-singer Neville Staples described it last year), some of which (the extended dub-heavy 'Stereotypes' for example) never made it into their live set first time round. Although chief songwriter Jerry Dammers is still absent from the current re-union, it doesn't detract anything from tonight's performance, all eyes firmly fixed on the deadpan Hall and his more animated sidekick Staples.
The set as a whole is a heady mix of album favourites ('Man At C&A' and its "Warning! Warning! Nuclear attack" intro particularly standing out) and classic singles culminating in a buoyantly poignant trawl through 'Ghost Town' during the encore. While there are those who see The Specials emergence in the nostalgia market as an unholy decree of sacrilege, their music is still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago, and even though the audience is made up of predominantly male forty-somethings, the fact that the rest comprises a healthy contingent spanning three generations tells its own story. Whether or not The Specials will ever record together again remains to be seen. For now though, accomplished performances such as the one they give this evening will ensure their legacy is maintained for the forseeable future.
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