The Specials + The Ripps @ The Ricoh Arena, Coventry UK – 15/05/2009

Posted by Bianca on Friday May 15, 2009 Under Ska

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It would be fair to say that grown men will only willingly dance on two occasions: at weddings is one, where their normal high level of self-awareness is snatched away.. and the other occasion? At Specials gigs when the infectious, continuous groove becomes so irresistible that even Jerry Dammers himself could not contain himself (however, that was apparently at the London gig, he is absent from tonight’s proceedings).

It is a very wet night in Coventry; the police are a small but noticeable presence, even if they are all huddled together, sheltering from the rain; the security is a very obvious barrier; and sniffer dogs are inside an already packed venue. The Jaguar Exhibition hall is a big barn, larger than I expected and I am stunned to see so many people inside so early.

DJ Felix is on the decks and mike and he is pumping out some great reggae tunes; the gigantic bass booming around the walls. I am feeling fantastic as I recognise every song he spins. From the mid 60’s through to the late 70’s, reggae was such a powerful underground force and it had an unquestionable influence on the 76 punk movement that led to the ska movement exploding across the country in 1979. Since then most things have been diluted by the multi-national companies as they try and cater for the lowest common denominator. The Specials are indeed special for always doing what they wanted and never selling out: tonight’s performance is proof indeed, if it were needed, that The Specials have remained true to their original agenda and they continue to perform on their own terms.

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Much to my initial annoyance, DJ Felix’s set is cut short by local support band The Ripps, who come on stage to polite applause and launch into a set that is comparable to a tribute ska band. I move closer to the stage as I know that Lynval and Horace had personally invited The Ripps to support them tonight, so they must have something about them. Sure enough, the sound gets tighter the closer you get and their unmistakable musicianship shines through. Their sound is heavily influenced by 70’s British ska; guitar skank in every song, deep bass and reggae offbeat drum accents everywhere. The music, as with all good ska, is addictive. Lyrically though, they are not as strong as they could be, given the current political situation (arguably as close to 1979 as it ever has been). ‘Blood On The Streets’ is a good example, as it is just not sharp enough and ends up being more like The Ordinary Boys, than street-smart Specials.

Part way through the set a three-piece brass section joins the band and The Ripps’ potential is fully realised. ‘Daddy Was A Hero’ has a memorable chorus and with a subject matter presumably influenced by the story of the singer’s parents who escaped political persecution from General Pinochet in Chile, is closer to the kind of gritty political stance that shaped the lyrics of Dammers 30 years ago. When the set finishes, I have warmed to the Ripps and can see that if they can find a lyric as relevant and sharp as ‘Too Much Too Young’, they will be unstoppable, because everything else in their arsenal is solid enough to sink ships. I must also say, even at the expense of shooting off at a tangent, that the drummer had the most fantastic moustache I have seen in a long time, and it would put Earl Hicky to shame.

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DJ Felix returns while the stage is cleared for the main act, and I notice that suddenly the space that had been around me is slowly filling with big, middle-aged men, spilling their pints as they push through the crowd to the section directly in front of the stage: a space that had been occupied by middle-aged couples and children. I have never felt so exhilarated and frightened at the same time since the Sex Pistols gig last year. My fears are fully realised when the lights go down and ‘Do the Dog’ explodes into the arena, suddenly a mass of 18 stone men begin bouncing. By the time ‘Gangsters’ kicks in as track two, the mosh pit has engulfed everyone within 30 feet of the stage. Couples and children are retreating for their lives, clinging onto loved ones as a sea of Fred Perry T-shirts and bald heads threatens to swallow them up. As the timeless classics pour from the stage, I make my way backwards to find some space, away from the dangerous elbows and the plastic glasses of beer that rain down, thrown by persons unknown, but there is no space anywhere. Every square foot of the hall is crammed with people, and everyone is dancing: this really is a homecoming party worthy of the best of the British ska bands.

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The songs come in quick succession: ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Concrete Jungle’, Man At C&A’, ‘Stereotypes’, ‘Nite Klub’, ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, ‘Do Nothing’, ‘Too Hot’, ‘Message To You Rudy’ and more. It is astonishing. Musically you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the versions recorded 30 years ago: still performed with passion, still performed whilst racing around the stage (except Mr Hall of course who always was the epitome of cool, just walking from the front to the back of the stage, carefully negotiating around his band members). How Messrs Staples, Golding and Panter can keep up that level of energy for almost two hours is staggering – it is exhausting to watch.
The set closes with the song that encapsulated Britain in 1980/81: ‘Ghost Town’. It is staggering to think how so many decades later we have not really moved on from the image Dammers painted of that generation: he wrote of all the clubs being closed down, but how many pubs have shut over the last 12 months across the Midlands (admittedly for different reasons), and the fact remains that many high streets have ended up as a collection of boarded up shops and pubs. Not that the crowd are thinking this as the stage empties, they are just screaming for more.

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After a short break, we are treated to ‘Too Much, Too Young’, for me this song above all others says everything about who The Specials are. When released as an EP in 1980, it was not the album version, but a live version. It felt like they were saying, this is what we are really like; not the slowed down album Specials, but an amphetamine soaked, pumped up, tempo breaking Specials that you will only witness when you share the same room. It is truly awe-inspiring. Terry Hall’s vocal delivery is absolutely perfect, he even changes ‘manure’ to ‘shit’, as if now they are not bothered by radio play, they can say exactly what they want. It is also heart-warming to hear people shout ‘you silly moo’, when it is only the live ep version that contains that line (and even tonight is not sung by the band).

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So Friday night slips into Saturday morning. The rain is still pelting down. I am wondering now what to do, as this is the end. I am wondering whether The Specials will stop now they have created this perfect circle; from Coventry, around the world and back to Coventry with one of the most stunning live performances I have ever seen. Part of me selfishly hopes this will be the last performance, because I cannot see how it could be bettered. However, having just checked their website, I can already see that this ‘final’ night of the tour being the penultimate night, as they are to play Leeds on 24th May. Just as long as they don’t end up like Status Quo.

Review – Al Neilson
Photos – Steve Bulley

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