The Specials Encore: Well-Turned Out

By Jacqueline Howell

The Specials, by now an institution to those who know, reached their first number one album on the music charts in the U.K. in February 2019. Fans who do social media the right way are still sharing pictures, excited as kids at Christmas, of the new album being played on their turntables. We’re among them. The band’s extensive spring U.K. / Europe and U.S. tour will sell out as it always has and as it has, emphatically, since the band reformed around 2010. The tour will include several days in Coventry, where the band formed. They will kindly visit the U.S. and Canada, as they always do these days. And make no mistake: in a time of bleak, dystopic, machine-made pop music crafted from smoke and mirrors designed to obscure that today’s pop music acts are product mascots miming and dancing looking like lost pageant children, The Specials’ spectacular reception, rumbling as it has for some months through the authentic underground, quietly building momentum, finally broke through at just the right time, in a matter of otherwise bleak, midwinter days. It’s historic.

It’s no accident that The Specials first record in 37 years, Encore, is so successful and has been embraced so fervently by a generation (or two) who live unconditionally: who love things sincerely, waving them like flags, or not at all. The unequivocal success of The Specials’ new record is real, gritty, and pure. It’s not the result of ads and expensive handshakes, a contrivance of some branding genius somewhere, ensconced in a cool but lifeless concrete supervillain lair, who needs only his thumbs to influence the world for good or ill. It’s the opposite of things we’ve grown used to in music, trends that we suspect, that make us mistrustful of all media messages, while our critical thinking abilities and voices are regularly shouted down by thoughtless social media commentary that dominates so much public opinion. The success of The Specials in 2019 is (remarkably) the same as their success of their first records and tours: the result of hard graft, talent and something even rarer, an incorruptibility. Once again, we are seeing the rareness of originality rising to the top, and being embraced when it’s found. Only later does it seem inevitable or easy. Only from a distance. The ingredients of the new Specials record are the markers of genius that we’ve gotten rusty at recognizing because we are rarely offered it, point blank, no strings attached, in this new century that promised us so much more.

Lead single “Vote For Me” came out of the dark one day, sounding very reassuringly like The Specials of old. Terry Hall has always told us the truth, sounding fearless and confident, and detached in a way we all strive to be. “If we vote for you, do you promise / to be upright, decent and honest / To have our best interest at heart? You understand why we don’t believe you / You’re way too easy to see through / Not the best place to start.” YES. YES. YES.

Isn’t this what we’ve all needed? A crisp voice of reason, from a time, place, memory of when we had true musical outsiders we could trust? Where a dance beat and even a trombone could merge with punk rock’s ethos and whatever was coming next at the end of the century, telling us kids that things were dark, but we would still dance, resist, fight if we had to, and question what we were told by whichever grinning wolf sat in power? Thatcherite early 1980s Britain was full of turmoil, pain and glorious rebellion that was carried on music as much as anywhere, and maybe more. The Specials ducked in and out of taverns and working-class towns and down dark winding motorways in those days of emerging, to find out some people didn’t dance, but only ever threw bottles to express themselves. The Specials tenacity is well-documented, but as a reminder, they encountered seething, vile racism, out in the open, the violent kind, which made being a band like them dangerous, and yet, they sang, played, fought, resisted, and looked a million. There was no one else like them then. There’s still no one like them. Today’s political leaders have led their nations into darkness again, and the questions raised by The Specials in the late 1970s and early 1980s still ring out. Only now they, and we, have follow up questions. New sounds. More ammunition.

Encore is full of moods, ideas and painterly colours with pretensions. It’s a mature work, one that sounds like the organic evolution of this band. With a fairly short, tight and perfect back catalogue, the new record has been made with the attention and patience maturity brings. No need to repeat what was done before. No obvious label pressure to pander to pop or dance hooks (hell, they invented and adapted new kinds of hooks in popular music worldwide.) With a nod to the founding members’ divergent pasts, they’ve remade the Fun Boy Three song “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum”, which deserves to be bopped to by new audiences. The inclusion of a Fun Boy Three song also points to the reality of the divergent paths the bandmembers have taken over the years, heading off any silly criticism about then and now and members’ departures. It’s a dark world, in which we have all lost too many, too young all the time. The fact that Terry Hall, Horace Panter and Lynval Golding are still here, and still here (making & performing their music on a global stage), is, as recent years’ concert-goers can attest, worthy of skanking your knees down to nubs.

Encore draws on the different musical styles that make up The Specials’ unique and genre defying bouillabaisse, with call backs to Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker’s music, as usual, spun with just an acid, British, twist. This band is still keenly in tune with not only the particular cultural concerns of Britain, but of the planet, too. Travel and life beyond the journey of a band grounds Encore firmly in the present moment, with authority to speak on the deepest concerns of today (as ever, with style): gun control. Black Lives Matter. Feminism, particularly in re-centering of the “I” of who has the mic and the power, a bold and sincere statement from a historically all-male band.

Which brings us to “10 Commandments”. The song features Saffiyah Khan, the activist who famously stared down an alt-right man while wearing a Specials T-shirt. This tune is a spin on Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments”, in which the subject, women, are instructed how to behave.  Buster’s ten commandments have been remixed and remade in a kind of call-and-response.

“The Life and Times of A Man Called Depression” takes an insightful look at its subject. Terry Hall has been open about his depression as well as throwing support behind awareness campaigns in the U.K. Here, The Specials take another clear-eyed look at a subject that has too long been the subject of shame in families, in the workplace, and in the arts, where we demand of ourselves and our entertainers to be “on” at stage time, to perform and to give those waiting the time of their lives no matter what illnesses people are dealing with behind the scenes and outside of the 90-minute window of a gig. Depression among musicians seems, to us as journalists and music fans (first) to be a pressing issue deserving of consideration in the demanding world of entertainment. We need our artists well, and to get to retire, and to have private lives that are balanced with all they give us.

“He stands accused of being socially inept
Some say rude, aloof, devoid of any real truth
He lives in a world of self-doubt, self-pity, self-loathing, self-harm…”

Depression is an urgent subject for artists to become more vocal and honest about, as we’ve lost too many beloved artists in recent years to depression and its tragic outcomes. A song like this will no doubt hit home to so many, as well as affording a moment of empathy for our artists themselves.

The remarkable Lynval Golding steps into a bigger vocal role on Encore. He masterfully re-interprets The Valentines’ “Blam Blam Fever”, his authentic timbre ringing with the all the divergent experience of a Jamaican-born boy / now mature man living in America, a country of pain and strife today, much of it based around abuses of power and senseless gun violence. These themes continue into the very personal “B.L.M.”, in which Golding shares his life story through three countries and the casual, cruel brutality of racism he’s encountered along the way. His story is poignant, painful and clear: Black Lives Matter. Golding uses his warm voice and his platform to point to an ugliness that follows people of colour across time and space, that must be seen and called out with no quarter given, (including by everyone who hasn’t experienced it, as allies).

And so, we listeners and lifelong fans get to feel part of a brand new chapter, a continuum that started back in 1977 with a call for “black, white: unite”; the look, feel, style, and deeper messages of a sound and a loose philosophy called “two-tone”; the band who made it fashionable to be radical, peer over our hedgerows and borders, shake shit up. The Specials did this all while subtly giving glimpses underneath the well-turned cuff of a sharp suit, those unseen, countless, painstaking stitches, the labour that makes something as straightforward as fabric into art. The Specials will take this new music, blended with their classics, and their solid arguments on the road, as ever, facing down difficult subjects with the grace, power and euphoria of music.

Twitter: @JacksDisarm

Toots and the Maytals return to Toronto

Friday, August 10th saw the return of the one and only Toots and the Maytals to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. The man who pioneered contemporary Jamaican music (greatly influencing and heavily “borrowed” by 1970s & 1980s British SKA music) and who coined the term “reggay” itself, is now 75 years young and still has much to teach us and say to the world.

Toots in performance has an incomparable personal style that is both warm and cool. He knows who he is, what his place is in history, but he’s still pleased and happy to receive the love from the audience. The often taciturn and hard-to-please Toronto crowd tonight is all his: sticking ’em up until told to put ’em down, giving it to him one, two, even thirteen times, and even becoming a crowd capable of roaring: not something one ever expects in a room like this. But this is Toots. This is legend and legacy, ease, chill and heart.

Joined by a super tight-ensemble that gives their leader fist bumps on request without missing a beat, the show is one full of layers and colours, extended riffs and a feeling of spontaneity. There’s an intimacy tonight that has a different rhythm than the band’s last visit less than two years ago (both shows being memorable in different ways) the earlier show seeming to be designed to be a crowd pleaser, and this one a little more laid back and trusting that we are not just a crowd, but friends who will go with the flow. Having seen Toots and the Maytals for the first time almost a decade ago, we thought then how lucky we were to see a legend one time. We’re now on four and still eagerly counting. This is a miracle in today’s musical world, with shows selling out worldwide, and a singular artist who says he never goes home making us feel like we got to sit in on a family jam instead of seeing another gig in a familiar venue.

Apparently the show goes over, but we don’t care. Toots is not leaving without a ten or fifteen minute single-song encore of classic “54-46 Was My Number”. This caps off a night where even a master & pioneer (who even made the John Denver classic “Country Roads” his very own) has time to do their 1973 cover of the much covered classic “Louie Louie”.)  We also heard the great new song “Marley”, about Toots’ friend and Reggae legend Bob Marley.

The Danforth Music Hall sits amid a scene in one of Canada’s finest, most friendly neighbourhoods. It is one that was shot up two weeks ago, one where young, innocent people died, are still recovering in hospital, and many continue to work and carry on in a community that is dealing with deep shock and trauma. This community has rallied and shown what it’s made of. It has doubled down, as you do in tough times, to assert that it is one of family ties, not just coincidental neighbours or even friends. And Toots and the Maytals casts a golden glow over a place at a time when this music’s restorative powers, defiance of oppression, and quiet strength are most needed.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

Ziggy Marley Live at the Danforth Music Hall, Toronto

Words and Photos by Dave MacIntyre

The approach of cooler weather in Toronto was held at bay in lieu of warmer waves of Reggae rhythm brought to the city by Ziggy Marley. The son of the legendary Bob Marley, it can be argued that Ziggy fits the same status and has for some time having released six studio albums to date, including this May 2016’s self-titled release. This is a man and artist that has earned his own success by fusing a legitimate passion and skill for songwriting with outstanding live performances that, without a doubt, prove he’s just as gifted as his father was.

Marley’s stage productions are big, but focus is placed on musical instrumentation including various percussion setups, and room for dancing back-up singers, instead of complicated lighting rigs and visuals. It keeps the atmosphere intimate and genuinely “roots”, which is really what this music is all about. Besides, the front-man and his singers are themselves riveting, making extra flair unnecessary.

Fans were treated to 120 minutes of near-perfect music that included new songs, classic Ziggy Marley tracks like “Tomorrow People” and select Bob Marley songs that turned the Danforth Music Hall into a joyous sing-a-long party. “Get Up, Stand Up,”, “One Love”, and “Could You Be Loved” were goose-bump inducing covers that sounded remarkably like the originals and fit in nicely with Ziggy’s own material. Although an encore did not follow due to time restrictions, it’s unlikely anyone left unhappy with the what they heard and witnessed.

The Coolest and the Warmest: Toots and the Maytals Live in Toronto

Toots and the Maytals are back on stage in Toronto for the first time since 2011. The city’s been lucky to be a regular tour stop for the legendary musician over the years, but the mood in the crowd at The Danforth Music Hall is electric, buoyant, charged with an energy that many people reserve for vacations and special trips, or maybe, the energy that can only come (without the price of a plane ticket) from an enlightening and rare musical experience. From Reggae. From Reggay.

Toots Hibbert holds a rare place in music currency, music currently, and musical history. You should know that his roots are solid and his cred is beyond cred. For this is the man who invented the term “Reggay.” The reggae most people know so well, the Marley reggae, was actually born about a generation ahead of Marley in Toots’ Jamaica, in Toots’ heart and mind and rhythms. In Toots’ band.

And not only that, but Toots is musical ground zero for Rock Steady. For SKA. For music that was carried to England and transformed listeners in the 60s and 70s, that transformed kids picking up basses and keys and drums, that added a twist and birthed British SKA. The Specials. Later, The English Beat. And many, many more.

All of this would be noteworthy enough for an article, for a nostalgia trip, for a looky-loo to see how one of modern music itself’s elder statesman and pioneers is faring in the live setting these days. Sometimes, the looky-loo, the stub, the say-you-were-there is enough. Sometimes it has to be enough. At over 70 years young, Toots would be an interesting draw even if it were not exciting, alive, and fresh but just okay. He was sidelined for the past few years due to some idiotic crowd behaviour causing him a serious injury, and those who know about that feel an extra charge of celebration at what we almost lost, for we are spoiled and need Toots around for a long long time.

But beyond that, Toots is something otherworldly, planetary, and always has been. His voice is the same rough hewn, original, drawl, set to cruise control but with a powerful thrust always close at hand, as it was on those perfect records made in the 1960s. He never ages, he was a wise old owl since he was a kid, when he first hit the mike. He’s the same, he’s lovely. He’s impossible.

So getting the chance to be in the room with Toots and the Maytals, right now a full assembly of wire tight musicians and multi-generational family members singing and supporting, is to have lucked into some kind of house party of your wildest dreams. The entire Toronto crowd is at a constant shuffle, a bop, some are free-form dancing, some women, a lot of women, are in delightful full on vacation mode and the dresses they take down to the Caribbean once a year. Summer in Toronto this year has been tropical. All that’s been missing is this kind of music to make it complete.

No one can stay still, for once, and those that can’t dance roam; the room is in a constant churn of bodies, but it feels more like a community than a crowd tonight. You might have seen a lot of shows and love live music but how many times has a legend said to you from the stage, let alone at two or three different times, conversationally, casually, sweetly “I love you”?

The early sounds of Rocksteady and Ska mixed with what would become Reggae make a Toots and the Maytals show, along with totally original lyrics and song styling make this performer permanently unique and singularly perfect. There’s a secret formula going on up on stage that even played so many times over the years in front of crowds has never been duplicated and is utterly Toots Hibbert, The formula is Toots’ and his alone. It’s in his intonation, his grunts, his trills, his vocal punctuations. How many songs start off with “Hmmmmm. Ummmmm ummmm? Hey. Listen.” (Music starts). Such is the (rare) cover that Toots successfully made his own, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. John Denver’s West Virginia seamlessly folds into West Jamaica like a bookmark in a story that rarely makes it back once its been in the popular charts. Toots’ songs and influence have been covered everywhere for so long that it’s very interesting to note what happens when he takes the same approach, it turns into something all new and better. It’s deep, it’s moving, and it’s pretty. It’s Jamaican now. Toots pulled a similar trick with the Radiohead modern classic “Let Down” with Easy Star All-Stars.

It’s so powerful, it’s truth and it’s even the best kind of tourism. It’s better, this one song sung by this man, than any big splashy campaign could ever be, it’s had a lot to do with putting the country of Jamaica on the map since travel and tourism to the region took off in the 1970s. It’s doublespeak, it’s a hot potato. When Toots sings anything, the meanings are multiple, the smiles, the chills and the sparkle spotted in strangers eyes is intoxicating, and the complexity of a true artist from a beautiful, small place with a hard history, where life is difficult, is never forgotten. It’s a party that understands how to live in adversity, how to take the bitter with the sweet, how to laugh and how to love, because that’s magic, that fights darkness. It’s educational, and it’s learned through all the senses.

Toots has so many great songs over a lifetime. No flat notes. He says tonight “We’re going to play all the Number Ones.” How many artists can say that, casually, at ease? Number ones from a time when music was carried on vinyl on boats and planes. Number ones that were as true and as uncorrupted as today’s are rigged and sketchy. The Maytals “Monkey Man” a song made uber-famous by The Specials in the 70s, has the cool bartender jumping and jiving from behind her post at the in-venue bar for a full three minutes. Music like this makes our muscles remember being three years old and dancing like no one was watching, the years of self-consciousness of city living whisked away with those first harmonious, firm notes. The main words of that song are “I-yi-yi, I yi-yi” and they speak volumes. We get to step with a bit of “Pomp and Pride”. We Canadians, thousands of miles from Jamaica get to think we understand yard language, private slang, patois. We’ve snuck into this great party. With Toots. Toots loves us!

“Funky Kingston” is a song that begs to have tomes written about it, but don’t let this writer’s personal view that within those few lines lie the makings of an entire school of philosophy bore you out of the simple truth that this song is an epic for these times, a new Shakespeare, a more fun Woodsworth. “I want you to believe every word I say. I want you to believe everything I do.” “Music is what I’ve got. And I’v got to find some way to make it.” Hibbert says as firmly as when the words were dreamed into being way back when. MUSIC, his music, as sung about here, must come and must carry on around the world even if the place it was born in, Kingston, is no longer what it was. Places and life can be taken from us, places are not firm and safe as we thought as kids, ground is not solid, is it? Music is more solid than the idea of home. Than the shifting powers of a place and ever-changing times, than sadness and loss. And it rings out with a power that is deep and free. Lets everyone in, mitigates righteous anger with the gift of love.

One of the last moments in a night of rhythms that crest and break like waves, like nothing boring or programmed, that were born free and operate with real instruments and a minimum of tech to get in the way and is bigger than machines can make, is the anthem “54-46 Was My Number”. Toots introduces this song by looking around the room for faces that look like his, touching on the ever-present, front page 2016 issue of police unfairly targeting black people in his Toots-like, light and plain-speaking way. “If a police officer were to stop you, how many of you would be guilty?” He asks the crowd. He counts. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” One such man slips by toward the back of the venue, smiling to himself, fleeing the gaze of the man on stage, able to laugh for a moment about terrible truths of this world. That is the magic of music, of leaders, of those with love to give the world.

He launches into “54-46 Was My Number” (prisoner number) which begins “Stick it up, mister!” the crowd is told to put their hands in the air, as usual. Stick it up mister, and put your hands in the air, sir, have a new meaning when someone is in rightful power upon a stage versus a policeman abusing theirs. It’s transformed and its even transformative. It’s resistance, it’s community. The command is an invitation to share instead of a threat. It’s exactly how you snuff out abuse and wrongness in the world in those spaces you can push into, if you are an artist. It becomes, it is, Soul. It becomes Motown. We get to pretend we were around for real Motown, which in all its richness, also borrowed and took from this original man.

In this electric song lies a whole spectrum of Toots and the Maytals colours. These colours only exist right here and impossibly, are as true and bright as they were before most of us were born. It’s a perfect wonder. Hey. Listen.

Jacqueline Howell

Lee “Scratch” Perry Live at The Danforth Music Hall

The Upsetter.  Super Ape.  Whatever name you choose to reference him by, Lee “Scratch” Perry is a living legend, not only to reggae, but music globally.  If you listen to reggae, ska, dancehall, dub, drum n’ bass, jungle, or hip-hop (and many more for that matter) chances are Perry’s mark can be found somewhere within the fabric of the music.

Saturday night, with the aid of New York City’s masterful Subatomic Sound System, Lee “Scratch” Perry celebrated 80-years on planet earth by taking a room full of devotees on a journey that started in 1969 with The Upsetter and continues into present day.  Maneuvering the stage with the ease of a man many years his junior, Perry stomped, kicked and raised his fists high, lighter in hand, glow ball bouncing, while the scent of incense poked into bananas, swirled around him.  The Danforth Music Hall answered with a sea of raised lighters that shone through the smoke machine haze.  For the veteran fans and new initiates alike, it was reggae gospel.

Dave MacIntyre

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