Seeing The Specials play live again is something I never thought would happen. Their surprise set at Bestival in September last year was the surreal highlight of that waterlogged festival. Seeing The Specials without Jerry Dammers is also a bittersweet event, you know it’s going to be a greatest hits sing-along but doing it without the man who put the band together?

The capacity of the Brixton Academy is around 5,000 and it’s packed tonight. Most of the dates on this UK tour are also sold out, but this is a band that last played together in 1981 so there must be a lot of people who have been waiting to see them again. Of the six original members on stage, Terry Hall is the youngest and he’s fifty. They all look in pretty good shape though, especially Neville Staple who has kept The Specials flag flying in recent years by playing the old favourites with his own band.

The gig starts with the band in silhouette behind a huge curtain, playing the lounge version of “Nite Klub” to cheers from the packed house. The curtain falls away and they launch into an intense, manic version of “Do the dog” and the frenzied crowd sing-along begins :-). The majority of the crowd look like the people who grew up with the band, ageing overweight skinheads, rude boys annd rude girls (my demographic exactly), although there is a healthy smattering of younger faces here and there.

Halfway through the set they’re joined by a brass section which beefs the songs up perfectly. Terry Hall is great, he constantly says what a pleasure it is to be playing again and sends himself up as the dour man who never smiles whenever he introduces a song.

And it’s the songs that have stood the test of time and sound as fresh as ever. Songs of wit, passion, humour and meaning, it’s great to hear how fantastic these sound when played live. I counted something like 24 songs in the 90 minute set and hearing “Gangsters”, “A message to you Rudy”, “Rat Race”, “Do Nothing”, “Concrete Jungle”, “Too much too young” and many others, we’re reminded of the great “slices of life” songwriting that made the band so important in the first place. The majestic “Ghost Town” is particularly relevant in these ongoing days of redundancy, disaffected youth and corporate level greed – the end result of Thatcher lecturing us that “there’s no such thing as society”.

Hearing “Ghost Town” in 2009 also highlights how much Britain has changed in the last 30 years in many ways, yet also managed to stay exactly the same in others. The multiculturalism we see in the UK – especially in music where hip hop and grime acts are made up of black and white kids who live in the same areas, dress, talk and adopt the same mannerisms is something that has its roots in the Two Tone era.

Of course, hearing “Ghost Town” just reminds me again that chief songwriter Jerry Dammers isn’t here and had wanted to do a greatest hits show along with some new songs until he was frozen out of his own bands’ reunion tour. So yes, it’s a great gig but a bittersweet one.

They close with “Enjoy yourself” and it’s the perfect ending to this reunion. It’s good to see they came back after all this time with an uplifting and energetic set full of crowd pleasers and didn’t just go through the motions. Great stuff from a still great band 🙂