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The Specials at Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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The Specials
Higher Ground Ballroom
South Burlington, VT
June 23, 2017

It should come as no surprise the larger of the two rooms at Higher Ground was packed for the Specials the night of June 23rd. After all, it was the right evening of the week, as their song alludes ("Friday Night Saturday Morning") and the English Beat had primed the ska/Two-Tone pump in their previous appearances at the Vermont venue.

But Dave Wakeling and co. entice a family-friendly crowd with their witty combination of reggae and pop, while Terry Hall, Lynval Golding et. al. appeal more to the punk demographic. So, the attendees for the Specials were rowdy and fairly raucous throughout the ninety minute set, egged on by a band who, while they may have been surprised at the positive public response when they regrouped in 2008, nevertheless knows how to play to its audience.

The octet spent much of the first half hour deep in a groove, equally resounding and mesmerizing, set by bassist Horace Panter and limber drummer Gary Powell. But the stories of disaffection and dislocation in songs such as "Nite Klub," "Blank Expression" and "Too Much Too Young," while not quite vivid as the Who's Quadrophenia (MCA, 1973), tell much the same story of fashion-conscious dead end kids searching for their own identity. The ambiguity in "(Dawning of A) New Era" is no less potent now than when the band originally recorded it on their eponymous debut album in 1979.

The Specials simultaneously exhibited their savvy and versatility as a band when, at approximately mid-set, guitarist Steve Cradock, Lynval Golding and keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen (on harmonica) played an acoustic version of the late Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Somewhat muted singalongs erupted from certain pockets of the room at this point, those moments markedly subdued in comparison to the audience's rousing response to Golding's comments on Burlington as the home of Bernie Sanders.

The band evinced further musicianly wisdom right through to the end of the show. Commencing string of short sharp numbers, the Specials set an increasingly up tempo paced as the set progressed; trombonist Tim Smart and trumpeter Pablo Mandleson came and went from the stage where they added just the proper amount of music hall spice, while Panter encouraged audience participation in order to attain a near boiling point intensity. As a result, the back bar area of the ballroom became sparsely populated as people crowded toward the stage at the outset of "A Message to You Rudy," later engaging in another fairly admirable singalong on "Enjoy Yourself."

Frontman Hall was duly impressed at this outpouring of engagement, even if he expressed it ever so facetiously, and his tongue-in-cheek list of thank you's near the conclusion left him at the threshold of snarky. To his credit, he had been proportionately generous in handing out bottles of water to those crowding the stage front throughout the performance, so he couldn't reasonably alienate those fans. Or all the other devotees of the Specials who, satiated after the two-tune encore, slowly departed the club into summer air outside as humid as that from which they had just emerged.

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