The Specials: Toronto June 6-7, 2017, Danforth Music Hall

The Specials, since they returned to this part of the world in 2010, have a way of sweeping through Toronto like one of our home team’s winning streaks from long ago that rallied grumpy strangers into impromptu communities where they stood. Their arrival spreads joy like light through our streets. A certain casual, perfect uniform congregates and settles comfortably around the venue, in the myriad area restos, pubs, dives and sidewalks, confident, alive, and in it to win it. All are festive, immune to dismal service, watch the clock more concernedly than the workday (that many have slacked off early from) in favour of timing the pints, becoming scheduling geniuses. The air radiates, it’s that playoff fever hockey fans distantly remember, but unlike sport, it’s a guaranteed win.

When The Specials first reunited for the world almost a decade ago, it was a world where Amy Winehouse was very alive, injecting music with a rare, much needed blast of energy that reminded people of sounds and colours and two-tone and horn sections and hype men. Of style and of substance. Of throwback and delightful weirdness that signals originality and was missing in music for too long. Of quality and big full stages of talent that is too important to economize. A new generation of young, strong, female singers who were not even “an idea yet” back in 1977 were now calling for The Specials on the world’s most visible & important big stage, Glastonbury. As if just for me and others like me. Wherever they are. And like something out of a dream, it folded together like the line of a beautiful suit, they came back. Here in Toronto, a legion of fans from back in the day, many of them a touch too young to have seen the first incarnation of the band live but who knew every groove by heart, rejoiced. Toronto mattered to this band?! US? (Sir Horace Gentleman writes in his must-read tour diary from 2010 that it was their “first real gig since the Albert Hall in February”!!! Who knew?)

2010, night two, was a party for the ages fans have been hunting for ever since. That night, Sound Academy, of the terrible sight lines and often worse sound, became The Royal Albert Hall or the high school dance of teen movie lore where the smiles and soundtrack are each impossibly lush. Everyone was happy & glowing. Everyone was well-lubricated. The hours before The Specials took the stage (at 10:45 pm) were full of loud classic SKA, Reggae and Rocksteady played on a massive sound system. Multi-generational fan groups included cool dads and their teenage kids in porkpie hats. Money became illusory, irrelevant. The outside patio area turned that venue into the city’s best hot spot for a night. The crowd was impossibly unified and happy to share a square of floor. (Then, a Toronto miracle). Ill-advised but useful platform shoes took a writer down, strangers gently helped her up and dusted her off. A moment at near front row (moving in natural crowd waves) saw a teenage boy offer the barrier spot to her for a turn, just to have the chance to see everything. And then:

Front and center, eye to eye with Terry Hall. The future writer & forever fan, euphoric, uncooly soaked in other people’s beer, makeup melted, wide eyed, probably looked like a religious nut. Hall looked right back, seemingly alarmed- but the fan knew not (yet) how wonderfully deadpan and inscrutable he really is live, making him eternally watchable and fascinating as a front man, singer and thinker. This was the start of the writer-as-fan. This was the impetus. This was the flash of real curiosity in what makes people and artists tick and soar and carry on. How to write about them? Such respect they deserve, and are far too-often denied (shockingly, even days before this eventful gig). Terry Hall is still and always an important social critic, a self-critic. As is Horace Panter (as an exciting painter and in his autobiography Ska’d For Life) As are The Specials. That night, the band still as complete a lineup as it had been in over two decades, their perfect cool was fell in flickers of true surprise and digging Toronto’s passion & swell. It seemed to create that perfect electrical charge that happens at rare gigs, that feeds both artists and fans equally, creating something rare and priceless for all.

Terry Hall watches and takes in everything. He sees much more than other singers do. He has an eye, an innate sense honed forever ago in sketchy back rooms in labour-disrupted broken towns on stages with no distance from friend or foe, for the mood, the movement and the danger that is always possible in crowds or mobs. For the bottle (goddamn you who do that shit). For the social deviant clown who ruins it for others. The crowd can turn- it is a temporary, tension-filled, community that is largely drunk. Hall seems to have near-psychic instincts for trouble near and far, a self-observer who’s done the hard work to be here, now, and a deadpan funny sharp wit the likes of which only Britain has ever produced. A tightly-wound intelligence and refusal to be inauthentic that is almost impossible in music today.

Back at the first show in 2010, Hall saw a small child with their mother in the crowd. Concerning. He had them brought to side stage. Clever girl. Now the work could proceed. Then, Neville Staple, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding had their traditional fun boy trifecta in place and weren’t we in Toronto so lucky. Was this real life? It was so like the record for which we knew the grooves the beats the pauses and the grunts. BUT imagine one of the most important records of your youth exploding into real life. All of us wannabe hype men. As powerful as Neville. As forever cool. All of us wannabe Terrys. Detached observers. Power-as-calm. All of us wannabe Lynvals. Warm, heart swelling and beaming from the stage. The perfect balancing agent between his friends, his brothers. All of us, some of us or just me? It was the most exciting show of mine and my partner’s entire lives and we’d seen our fair share. It bonded us into a drive to chase that high and celebrate that miracle. Nostalgia-free.

As, impossibly, something we were grateful to have that late August night in 2010, the one chance, was instead the start of a fine new tradition. The Specials have changed something. They inspired something here, something big and yet perfectly underground. They have continued to tour  (2012, 2016, 2017) and return to Toronto unfailingly. You had to be there, wherever there was in the late 70s or early 80s, or there in 2010 or there now. People are still joining these new Toronto crowds who are seeing The Specials for the first time. Others are there for each visit, fortunate, smart and sacrificing other discretionary purchases. Others, old hats like us, wait tables pre-gig and pre-game with them, imparting diners with the wisdom that they will love it, guaranteed. Community has become more possible. If you ever get to see a band you love for two straight nights, you will find a new level of joy. A new high. Maybe even new friends. You’ll long to become their roadie. Toronto was sold out for 2017 long before The Specials arrived this week to observe and report on the world, on the sound of the current line-up, on us. It involved a banana being thrown into the crowd. Two new & yet true friends who didn’t catch it debate whether we would bronze or taxidermy it. I mean, seriously. THIS IS HAPPY.

Neville Staple’s unique role had to be bridged, some way, when he stepped aside in 2013. A few of his signature tunes seem to have been “retired” for now and that seems right (“Stupid Marriage” and “It’s Up To You”) a fact only observed with a day’s hindsight. The careful change has gone seamlessly, as ever, the current line up has no flat notes. These whirlwind two Specials albums, like only the most inspired fleeting creations, never sat still long enough to bother with filler songs and the material is rich and diverse. Their messages ring out, utter permanence, words that are, at once, specific and geographically mapped to mid 1970s working class, tough, embattled London/England (the horrible realization of waking up in “Area Seven!”, for example) and yet contain beautifully timeless big ideas about life, meaning (/lessness) little bitches, the Rat Race, Concrete Jungles, whoever we / they want to think of in a given moment as “Rudy” love, rejection, Blank Expressions, Nite Klubs, and all that swirls around those ideas and experiences at any age. It was music from a time when music was not ever explained to us or picked apart, you learned it by osmosis, learned lyrics by ear. The world of The Specials was remote enough in origin to us here that the mystique was part of the thrill, so mysteries remain. England was part of many Canadian’s DNA and more glamorous than Hollywood in its intricacies of slang and style, its cultures and regional divides and social issues. Still is. We look to them.

Artists with the rare longevity / rebirth like The Specials are made of the toughest stuff. They’ve already ducked and dodged many arrows of the lesser and the never was-es and the bitter press many of whom missed it all because they lacked music in their souls. And their own interpretations of great SKA classics were done with openness and love, respect & innovation. Making something new, reigniting something at the time obscure, ensuring legacy of often-ignored pioneers like Toots, like Desmond, like Buster. Carrying on. Redefining. Shoulder to stylish shoulder. Imparting the same family-party like magic in the sound that the early greats conjured, that is absent in so many families, so many parties, that it’s fuel to our very souls.

And it erupts.

Standing still, singing and throwing out meaningful asides. Utterly focused and all-seeing.

Traversing the limits of the stage in a blur from back left to front right and back again, rocking a bass like no other.

Holding down the front corner balancing the energy and always remembering all those not with us, in an elegant suit and an even more elegant smile, in conversation with the team, and with us, and with love and with life. These are giants, what the hell can a kid from *Scarborough say about them? Say to them?

Just that the lifelong Specials fan, now writer, rejecting 90% of memories of age 15 BUT for sitting in the bedroom midweek drunk on vodka spinning this record, sees that memory now as a key. All that remains of that time is The Specials’ dark and yet exuberant worldview, wry humour, strange sounds and the idea of a party happening somewhere, people colliding and understanding each other “Ye can’t come in!” and us dreaming of other shores and codes of language and something more interesting that would have to come from our own marrow and nowhere else if we were to escape and survive. Just kids pretending we had power or voice, writing Specials quotes on walls and ignoring wider culture, music, TV and film for everything SKA opens us up to. The alternative 70s & 80s that linked back to an even more alternative 50s and 60s far from the braying crowd. Music, our only teachers in my 80s suburbia. Catholic High school just a way stop full of hypocritical buffoons that we understood suddenly, could now fight, resist, once we had these records.  Records carry us through rough waters and give us a vision of a better world, at once. Or form the backbone of a party.

It really can’t be overstated that a record telling you it’s OK and righteous to be angry and frustrated and burned out as a young person, to be disillusioned about love as a young person, already and truly heartbroken, that it’s even OK not to smile, to be down, to be immobile because of all of this shit is revolutionary and meteoric. That it is not just OK, but imperative to be an independent thinker (and a force of will is required, and we’ll always be looked at weirdly for it) and, taking this line of thinking further, that there are issues outside of our struggling selves that also matter greatly that we should take a stand on (no matter how shitty we feel), to RESIST, then as now, authority and systems and politicians and hateful people and vile racists far and wide. In your family, in your boardroom or in the pop charts even. This message is as important in 2017 as it was 40 years ago. This sort of musical brew could only happen when and how it did, right there, on wax. The Specials long ago achieved and retained legendary status in the truth and the majesty of their unified uncompromising vision and massive sound.

Terry Hall speaks to Toronto’s audience here, last night and the night before, quite a bit more than we remember from the past three visits. We’ll take that as the thrill it is for those of us waiting attentively for half a lifetime to know more. That said, we never take notes and like to hoard some of those memories. You had to be there. He tells us just what he thinks of Oh Henry bars, a chocolate I think I loved til that very moment but now, “it’s shit.” He’s as riveting as ever as the band complete with brass section swirls around him in a flurry. The laughs among them and side looks are real. This is cool, kids. Terry’s mystique is forever, The Specials legend is cemented ever more. Out of time. Hall had time enough in Toronto this week to observe that we have too few benches and too many revolving doors that are “spinning for days”. This is the capper of a beauty of a two night stand. Terry Hall is right as per usual.

Thank you to The Specials.

Words by Jacqueline Howlett and photos by Dave MacIntyre.

* Scarborough, the suburb of Toronto