The Specials - live in Chicago (Cover Artwork)

The Specials

live in Chicago (2019)

live show

The Specials live at the vic theater Chicago 6-8-19

The Specials playing at my favorite venue in Chicago! I’d been looking forward to this 40th anniversary tour since it was first announced in January. Now, I’ve loved the Specials for 40 years, but I must say that I found their comeback 2019 album “Encore” to be average at best. if they wanted to move this far away from the classic Specials ska sound then they should have recorded under the Fun Boy Three name, because they have 2 of the 3 members and they cover a FB3 song on the album. That would have been a much more natural fit and it seemed they were using the Specials name purely to get sales. But here they were playing my favorite venue in Chicago and I figured that they still had to be excellent live, right? Hmm.

Now for those of you keeping score at home there are currently only 3 of 8 original Specials still in the band: Terry Hall (vocals), Lynval Goulding (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Horace Panter (bass). Steve Craddock had been playing guitar with them since Roddy Radiation left in 2014 but he isn’t even on this tour. JB, the original drummer died in 2015. Founding member and main songwriter Jerry Dammers hasn’t played with them since the 80s and is said to be very bitter that the band continues to use the name.

The evening started off badly. The support was from a sleepy 2-piece called LA Salami (I shit you not). And when I say sleepy I MEAN sleepy. One dude playing an acoustic and whispering into the mic for 8-10 minute songs with only a bass player behind him. Seriously, they played 4 songs in 30 minutes. And his guitar kept going out of tune. It was the kind of thing you’d expect to see at open mic night at a coffee house, not to get the crowd hyped for one of the most famous ska bands in the world. And then of course came the interminable wait between bands. I swear that I’ve spent half my adult life waiting for the main band to come on. And it was made even more galling because the openers had precisely NO equipment to move off stage. The Specials equipment was all there, ready to go, but that didn’t stop the seemingly endless crew of Specials roadies from running around like madmen, dropping off water bottles and towels, and then coming back 5 minutes later to move them 2 inches. I swear it was like roadie intern night. The stage set was a huge backdrop with about twenty 1960’s looking protest signs painted on it: you know, stuff like “Ban the bomb”. It didn’t look bad but it didn’t look great either. It looked like something you’d see at a bad community theater.

And then they came onstage. Look, I know it’s not 1979 anymore, but the Specials always used to look as sharp as they sounded. From their porkpie hats to their tassel loafers this was a band that looked and sounded like they meant business. But this lot that assembled on stage looked like a bunch of strangers that were responding to a “musicians wanted” ad in the local paper. The only one that made an effort was Lynval Golding, and he looked great in argyle blazer and trilby. But the rest all looked scruffy, especially the anonymous long haired guitarist in the headband who looked like he’d be more at home in a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. And then there was Terry Hall. He shuffled onto the stage last, vaping away and looking like your grumpy drunk uncle at a Christmas party he didn’t want to attend. He literally looked like he had just woken up, put on somebody else’s clothes and was appearing somewhere he did not want to be. He made that clear from the first moment, kicking at the monitors churlishly as he walked to the mic.

They opened the set with a very low key “Man at C&A”. Lynval was doing his best, but it wasn’t helping Mr Hall’s mood. After that song didn’t get the reaction he thought it deserved he berated the crowd, asking us for the name of the capital of Bosnia and then enlightening us with the name along with its population. I assume the point was that we have to become better versed in World affairs? But as the first thing he said to the crowd all night it was quite bizarre. A couple of classics followed: “Rat Race” and “Do Nothing”, but that didn’t do anything to lighten his mood. Next was a b-side: “Friday Night, Saturday Morning”, followed by a song from the new album: “Embarrassed by You”. The whole band seemed excited to be playing that one. Two more classics followed; “Blank Expression” and “It Doesn’t Make it Alright”. I always found the Specials version of that song slow and weak, much preferring Stiff Little Fingers version, and this did nothing to change my mind. Next was the Fun Boy Three song that they added to the new album “The Lunatics have taken over the Asylum”. The lyrics do seem very apropos in 2019, and for the first time Terry actually seemed to be enjoying himself! Next up was an old ska classic: “Blam Blam Fever”, which Lynval used as an opportunity to berate the NRA. That was actually a perfect fit. Another classic cover followed: “A Message to you Rudy”, followed by a very slow and dragging “Stereotypes”. Up next was another from the new album, a reworking of the Prince Buster classic “Ten Commandments”, but this time from a feminist point of view. Terry left the stage for this one and was replaced by artist and activist Saffiyah Khan on vocals, and I have to say she was mesmerizing to watch live. She owned the stage, exuding the energy and excitement that Terry was not. He came back on to sing the classic “Nite Klub”, but for some reason he had a hissy fit and wandered off the stage halfway through, leaving a very puzzled band to ad lib until he came back to finish it 2 minutes later. They finished the set with a bevy of classics: “Do the Dog”, “Concrete Jungle”, “Monkey Man”, “Gangsters”, and finally “Too Much Too Young”. After 5 minutes they came back for the encore: an instrumental Skatalites cover, and finally “You’re Wondering Now” with Saffiyah Kahn on backup vocals. And then they were gone. All told Terry probably said 10 words to the crowd all night, and the dark cloud over his head and clear hatred of being on that stage ruined the whole show for me. It was one of the weirdest shows that I’ve ever been to in 41 years of going to gigs.

Ok Neil, say something positive! Well, Lynval Golding was a delight all night and Horace Panter did his best to get the crowd going. The brass section sounded on point even if they looked like a mess. And Saffiyah Khan was a revelation, both DJ’ing before the show and whenever she was onstage. But overall the night was a real, low energy disappointment, and if Terry really hates it that much he should probably just kick the whole damned thing into touch.