Gunnersbury Park, Acton, London

Thanks to the amazing Jon Read of the band Project Blackbird, I had the opportunity to be a guest of one of my all-time favourite bands The Specials at their gig for Gunnersville. Gunnersville is a new festival held over the weekend in Gunnersbury Park in Acton (which proved to be a great venue). 

Gunnersville 3

Doves had headlined the previous night. When we first arrived in the afternoon the young woman serving us at the bar casually told us most staff had been sent home early on the Friday because attendance figures were so low! No such problem tonight. Around 2000 were packed inside the giant marquee by the time The Specials hit the stage at around 8.30 in the evening. They played until well after 10PM (including encores). It is rare for any band or artist to play even half as long as that these days let alone a band whose remaining original members are now hitting 60!

Earlier in the day there had been sets from The Blinders, Ocean Colour Scene (who I didn’t get to see enough of to review them) and General Roots, a London-based multi-ethnic Reggae band who Jon had recommended as they supported The Specials on a tour he played on four years earlier. They were very impressive and engaging and are a band I have made a large note to check out again. Sweet melodies and harmonies in abundance and superb musicianship. 

The Specials were playing on a Saturday night at the end of what has, let’s face it, not been the most glorious week for the current UK government. And Lynval Golding, always such an exuberant presence, was never going to hide his unbridled joy at the problems stacking up for Boris Johnson! They had barely been on stage for five minutes before he was demanding that we use the next general election to kick the current administration down the stairs! 

There are three original members still in the band – vocalist Terry Hall, Lynval on Guitar and Vocals and incredible Bass Guitarist Horace Panter. Keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, a musician with a mouth watering CV of world class artists he has worked with, has been something of a regular with the band in recent years with Jerry Dammers unlikely to return to the band he founded and wrote so many classic tracks for. I had the pleasure of meeting Nikolaj earlier in the day. Guitarist Steve Cradock is as perfect a replacement for Roddy Radiation as you could ask for and drummer Kenrick Rowe is a very capable replacement for the late John Bradbury. The two-man horn section of the aforementioned Jon Read on trumpet and Tim Smart on trombone complete the line-up in some style. Tim faithfully interpreted all the many iconic Rico moments. 

When they kicked off with The Man at C&A from More Specials I was immediately in Ska music heaven, the dark chords, daunting horns and apocalyptic lyrics seeming as relevant as before even if the actual words harked back to a time when the Ayatollah Khomeni and the Cold War were the big threats on the world stage. A storming rendition of Rat Race followed before we were treated to one of six tracks from the latest and hugely successful album Encore. Vote for me sounded fresh and even slightly jazzy with its diminished and extended keyboard chords. One of the great advantages for The Specials in 2019 is that, having just had a UK No 1 album that represents their best and most celebrated recording in 35 years, they can have the confidence to include a decent selection of new tracks in amongst all the old classics. Keep it fresh in other words.

They rattled off a joyous stream of Two-Tone classics with Friday Night and Saturday Morning, Doesn’t make it alright, Do Nothing, A Message to you Rudy, Stereotype (a lyrical masterpiece that captured the character and behaviour of so many of the people I wished I hadn’t had to grow up around in my home town!), Nite Klub, Do the Dog, Concrete Jungle, Monkey Man, Gangsters and Too much too young. Terry and Lynval milked the crowd singalongs and played off each other endearingly, Terry’s deadpan persona offset by Lynval’s human Jack-in-the-Box. They also included their 2019 reworking of their [Terry & Lynval’s] Funboy Three classic The Lunatics have taken over the asylum (billed on the new album simply as The Lunatics), a song whose relevance to current events here and across the globe could not seem more poignant.

Also included from the new set were Embarassed by you, quickly establishing itself as a classic along with Blam Blam Fever and 10 Commandments for which they were joined by Saffiyah Khan for her spoken word vocal. This was made all the more entertaining and intense when the big screen camera followed her as she climbed into the audience and walked through the crowd with the mic before eventually making her way back onto the stage. Given her infamous protest against the EDL, where she similarly walked through the crowd, this was especially gripping. 

The audience were not going anywhere without an encore and they got value for their money. First up was another track from the new album, the beautiful and soulful We sell hope with its descending semi-tone arpeggio figure and octave-apart vocals. Then the place erupted as the first ghostly sound effects signalled the arrival of Ghost Town. With the extended instrumental dub passage and a return to the hook at the end, it was an exceptional version of what is, in my humble opinion, one of the twenty greatest songs of all time. Horace’s deep booming basslines and some superb playing by Jon and Tim on trumpet and trombone respectively really lifted the track. I should also mention the fantastic contributions by drummer Kenrick, guitarist Steve and keyboardist Nikolaj all of whom contributed to the muscular bedrock of sound underpinning the performance by the original three.

They could have called it a night at that point and the audience would have gone home happy. But they had one more ace up their sleeves. Namely a stunningly beautiful version of You’re wondering now with gorgeous harmonies and more lovely horn playing by Jon and Tim. As it approached the finish, Terry handed responsibility for singing the hook to the audience who duly lapped up this opportunity. That coming together with the audience was a perfect metaphor for the spirit of unity and solidarity that was evident throughout. They had played 22 tracks! I even danced most of the time (after a fashion!) and, trust me, I never dance!