Sunday, July 28, 2013

Duff Gig Review: The Specials at Pier 26 in NYC (7/17/13)

The Specials play "Do the Dog" at Pier 26
(Review by Steve Shafer)

For many of us in the crowd that night at The Specials' show at Pier 26, it felt like we were taking part in the best high school reunion you could imagine. (Before, during, and after the concert I literally bumped into dozens of pumped-up, happy ska people that I knew--a who's who of the NYC ska scene and beyond--some of whom I hadn't seen in years.) But instead of our shared school experience, what bonded the several thousands of us together in the past and present was our relationship with The Specials, forged over the decades via LPs, cassettes, left-of-the-dial FM stations, fanzines, music magazines, CDs, TV appearances, YouTube, and live concerts. Yet, it was still a wonderfully shocking and thrilling thing to be united together in the audience that night--no doubt, a result of enduring these nasty, fractious, and divisive times (when it seems like the social contract with our fellow citizens has been completely shredded by powers that stand to profit from widespread fear and intolerance through a general Balkanization of the people).

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was simply how damn fun it was (I was euphoric about the whole experience the entire following day). And wasn't that at the core of the whole Specials/2 Tone mission? Of course, their music also promoted multi-culturalism, tolerance, and social/economic justice. But who's going to receive it if no one shows up to listen and dance?

Dan Marotta and Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta of The NY Citizens
with Marc Wasserman and Roger Apollon, Jr. of Bigger Thomas
before The Specials' set.
Sure, the fact that it was a beautiful, sweltering summer's evening on a pier on the Hudson River off Lower Manhattan (with the new, phoenix-like Freedom Tower shimmering defiantly nearby) helped put everyone in a celebratory mood (even if a cup of beer was $8 a pop). But what was so brilliant was that just about everybody in the crowd was dancing madly and gleefully singing along with Terry Hall at the top of their lungs for the duration of the show.

For many of us forty-somethings in the audience, we had gone through our teen years with--and had been transformed by--The Specials' music and message. So, there was an additional nostalgic element to the night (and perhaps a bit of mourning over our lost youth and alarm at the passage of so much time). But The Specials' performance was so good (probably far exceeding the expectations of many fans that night) that it validated and reaffirmed our deep-rooted faith in and love for the band. I had never seen The Specials live before, but I'd compare The Specials of July 17, 2013 very favorably to the version of the band captured 30 years before in their stunning performance on Saturday Night Live in 1980--they were simply incredible; though having Neville Staple and Jerry Dammers there would have made things absolutely perfect.

One of my favorite moments that seemed to exemplify the whole concert--but one that I didn't capture on video, since I very much wanted to be part of it--was during a raucous rendition of "Enjoy Yourself." Everyone around me as far as I could see, people of all ages (it turned out that next to me with his young son on his shoulders was Ryan Reeves of The Exceptions who happened to be in town from Texas) and colors (the multi-racial couple dancing arm in arm in front of me), were shuffling their feet and singing the chorus loudly (and for us forty-somethings, the lyrics "the years go by/as quickly as you wink/enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself/it's later than you think..." sure have a sharper edge to them than they did 30 years ago). Live music experiences don't get much better than this.

It was especially heartening to find that The Specials were still fully committed to the anti-racist cause. When Lynval Golding "dedicated" Dandy Livingstone's "A Message to You, Rudy" to George Zimmerman, there was a hugh roar of approval from the crowd. And the band went on to play "Why?" in honor and memory of Trayvon Martin ("Why did you try to hurt me?/Tell me why, tell me why, tell me why/Did you really want to kill me..."); for those who don't know, Golding wrote this track after being severely beaten in a racially-motivated attack outside the Moonlight Club in 1980--his "offense" was walking/talking with two white women. "It Doesn't Make It Alright" was also sent out to Zimmerman (which Lynval and Roddy would do again at Electric Avenue a few nights later during their stellar semi-acoustic set). This is another track that points out how stupid it is to hate and fight with someone because of their color ("Just because you're a black boy/just because you're a white/It doesn't mean you've got to hate him/It doesn't mean you've got to fight"). It's certainly disturbing and dispiriting that The Specials' songs decrying racism remain so essential and relevant all these years later--the high school version of me would be appalled that much more hasn't changed for the better in 30 years (but I'm glad we've got these tracks in our anti-racist arsenal).

See the set list from the night in above (though they didn't play them exactly in that order)--there wasn't a bum song/performance all night. I shot several videos ("Concrete Jungle," "Blank Expression," "A Message to You, Rudy," and "Ghost Town"--all of which can be seen on the Duff Guide to Ska YouTube Channel). Probably the best of the lot is "Nite Klub":

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Earlier that afternoon, before The Specials' concert, I met up with my friend Marc Wasserman (Bigger Thomas, Marco on the Bass, Rude Boy George) for some pre-show drinks at the kitchy, trailer park-like bar (something out of a B-52s music video set) where our friend Megg Howe (Across the Aisle, Rude Boy George) works (I had my first can of my namesake beer--which didn't seem to be distributed in the NYC area when I came of legal age--and it actually wasn't awful; tastes a bit like PBR, which owns Schaefer). Since The Specials' concert was on a pier on the Hudson, we naturally started talking about the incredibly brilliant shows at Pier 84 in the 1980s, when we were in high school and college. This concert series often featured some of the best new wave and reggae bands (I caught UB40 multiple times, Peter Tosh, Echo and the Bunnymen, Midnight Oil, New Order, and many more) and the scene was really relaxed and cool (it helped that the drinking age was 18, so no one cared if you were 16 and buying and downing a couple of Millers; we also remembered that they used to give out half-packs of nasty Kool Menthol cigarettes to anyone and everyone, courtesy of one of the concert series' sponsors). This led to a discussion of how much better/more fun NYC was in the 1970s and 1980s (it was much funkier, grittier, and cooler) and to the travesty of what the city has become (essentially, a playground for the rich). This prompted the barfly to the left of me to start talking about Ugly George (a perv who used to roam midtown in what kind of looked like a spacesuit who somehow talked women into talking off their clothes in building vestibules while he videotaped them; he broadcast the results on Manhattan public access cable late at night; I never saw his show, but used to see him all the time when I was in middle school and all of my classmates and I knew exactly what he did...).

But I digress.

Post-concert euphoria with members of Bigger Thomas,
Across the Aisle, and Ryan Reeves (of The Exceptions)
The Specials' show was as great an experience as any of those concerts on Pier 84; it was like a bit of the 1980s in 2013. It's been said that recalling a memory is a bit like time travel--and this concert was like being transported back to my teen years for a few hours to experience one of the better aspects and purposes of being young: having fun. For the duration of The Specials' concert, nothing else seemed to exist or matter (though I'll cop to calling home to say good night to my daughter and I did exchange a text message with the wife). And that's an almost unknown pleasure in the adult realm (where you're always thinking and worrying about multiple things).

So, I'm grateful to The Specials for this rare experience--it was one of the most enjoyable and memorable shows of my lifetime (and rumor has it that the band thought it was one of the best of the tour). You can bet that I'll use the memory to the keep the spirit of the guy housed in this forty-something body young, happy, and alive.

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