Resurrected Specials' Two-Tone Ska Still Special

In concert, British band thrives on symbiotic relationship with its fans.

ATLANTA -- Specials lead singer Neville Staples stood perched at the

edge of the stage of the Masquerade club last Tuesday night. His blond dreadlocks were pulled back in a ponytail. Sweat dripped off his brow.

The British ska-revivalists were midway through a powerful rendition of "Running Away," their reinvention of the Toots and the Maytals' classic "Monkey

Man." Staples screamed encouragement at the packed crowd. The sweaty

bouncing mob in front of him didn't need it. They had been raring to go since

before the show's openers, the Skalars, had even played a note.

"I've never seen the Specials before," said Evan Eriksson, a 15-year-old from

Marietta, Ga. He rolled his shirtsleeves up to reveal a Madness tattoo. "I saw the

Skatalites when they were here a few months ago, and ever since I heard about

this show, I've been so psyched."

It was clear that Eriksson was not the only one. Members of the audience were

in a festive mood from the moment they walked into the Masquerade. Many were decked out in natty jackets, shirts, ties, suspenders, Doc Martens and Pork

Pie hats -- the traditional garb of the two-tone movement that spawned the

Specials, Madness, the Selecter and other British neo-ska bands. Some

gathered around the merchandise table to chat with members of the bands on

the bill or to check out copies of the performers' new CDs, such as the Specials'

latest. Others congregated at the bar where Staples and Specials guitarist

Roddy "Radiation" Byers held court and talked to many of the fans as if the

musicians had known them for years.

"I don't call them fans -- I call them friends," guitarist Lynval Golding said of the

band's communal relationship with its followers. "They're part of the family. We

drink with them. We talk with them. They're part of our band. That's what ska

and punk is all about."

That communal vibe seemed to emanate from the crowd as they skanked along

to Specials classics such as

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Specials,_The/Ghost_Town.ram">"Ghost Town" (RealAudio excerpt), "Rat Race" and "It Doesn't Make It Alright."

And the band looked out for its flock. When a burly bouncer dragged a stage-

diver toward the exit, Staples stopped mid-song to intervene on the diver's

behalf. As the temperature rose in the cavernous club and the sweat literally

flew off the revelers' bodies, Staples handed bottles of water down to the weary

dancers in front.

"I've never seen anything like that," said 32-year old Charlie Madigan of the

Specials' rapport with their audience. Madigan, a paramedic and fireman from

Douglasville, Ga., had won tickets to the show on the radio and came out of

curiosity. "I'm old enough to be most of these kids' father, but I'm impressed with

the whole thing."

He wasn't exaggerating about the crowd's median age. Probably half of the

audience wasn't even alive during the Specials' late '70s/early '80s heyday, but

all of them appeared to have done their homework. They sang along to old

gems such as "Gangsters" and

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Specials,_The/Rudi,_A_Message_To_You

.ram">"Rudi, A Message To You" (RealAudio excerpt) with the same

vigor that they did the band's recent radio hit, "It's You."

Overall, the new songs blended pretty seamlessly with the older ones, which

were originally recorded when co-founder Jerry Dammers and vocalist Terry

Hall were still in the group. (The Specials re-formed without Dammers and Hall

in 1996, after a hiatus of over a decade.)

Dressed in long, brown pants and a T-shirt promoting the band's new album,

Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent, Staples was flanked by Byers, looking every

bit the '80s British punk, and Golding, decked out in a blue-patterned

shirt and thick glasses. The singer led the group through a vigorous workout

that also included rollicking versions of the Skatalites' "Guns of Navarone" and

another old Specials favorite, "Concrete Jungle."

Everywhere you looked it was elbows and knees flailing as the audience skanked in unison to the bursts of trombone, sax and trumpet from the horn

section that accentuated the band's "chinka-chinka" rhythms.

The Specials' communal vibe also extended to the show's openers. Skalars

bassist Will Horton noticed it the night before, during the younger band's first-

ever gig with the legendary band. "It was really cool," Horton said. "Lots of

bands at that level, they wouldn't care about the bands they played with, but [the

Specials] were out in the audience checking us out last night."

This night, the Skalars' set ranged from traditional ska instrumentals ("Special

K") to soulful rocksteady ("High School") and even to some rockabilly ("Don't

Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes at Me"), while lead singer/saxophonist Jessica Butler

and trombonist/vocalist Evan Shaw worked feverishly to set the pace.

The Stubborn All-Stars followed the Skalars with a set that included original

songs, as well as covers of the Selecter's "Sellin' Out Your Future" and the

Beatles' "She Said She Said." With the entire band dressed to the nines, Jeff

"King Django" Baker crooned through rootsy ska ("Foolish You," "Tin Spam,"

"Might I Rise") and more ambitious tracks such as the reggae-tinged "Tired Of

Struggling" and the dancehall jaunt "Open Season."

Despite the frenzy that the All-Stars were able to drum up, the night clearly

belonged to the Specials. "That was the best show I've ever seen," remarked a

noticeably exhausted Maya Sturgis on her way out of the Masquerade. The 13-

year-old from Jonesboro, Ga., then looked down at her T-shirt and wiped her

face on it. "I'm dripping!" she exclaimed.