The Specials, Undercover S.K.A.
Thursday, July 31

Have you ever dreamed about going back in time to one of the creatively crucial moments in modern music history? Maybe to the groundbreaking recording session that produced Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Or to a cataclysmic live performance -- like "Wood Stock," the concert organized around the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, or Prince's "Sign o' the Times" tour?

Seems improbable doesn't it? But it happens. Why, just last week, a crowd jammed the Fillmore to see a Specials show, and halfway through the gig, that crowd found itself back in 1981. I went right along with them. Of all the years a guy could go back to. If a ska show at the Fillmore can transport me to the Reagan era, an after-hours jam session at Pearl's ought to swing hard enough to shuttle me back to New York circa 1937 to catch Charlie Parker and Miles Davis cutting a set at the Royal Roost.

Unfortunately, you can't order a wrinkle in time the way you might order an extra-large pizza with everything but anchovies. The circumstances surrounding so strange an event matter a great deal. Case in point: the Specials show. Maybe the blame should be placed on the cross-generational audience that packed the Fillmore to see and hear the remnants of the U.K. import that helped reclaim, revive, and retool the Jamaican ska scene of the '50s and '60s during the '80s. (The original lineup, which went under several names and featured Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall, dissolved in 1986.) Dressed in requisite derby hats, skinny ties, and pegged-leg suits, these fans were poised to twist, moss, and jump till dawn.

Or maybe an accusing finger should be pointed at the opening act, Undercover S.K.A., who gushed about how honored they were to be warming up the crowd for the Specials. By the time the local band caught their stride, the crowd was attentive. Fifteen minutes later, when they released the crazed musicianship of newly added percussionist Stark Raving Brad, it was skank or be spanked. You see, Brad is the kind of performer you do not dare bring onstage until the end of a set, for fear that he will steal your thunder and then ask you not to blame him for his goony charisma.

But lest we forget who the evening belonged to, the Specials must also be implicated in the night's time travel. Though the band's current personnel only partially reflect the original group, they did their best to invoke the style and sound that made the Specials so popular over a decade ago, when ska bands roamed the top of the international pop charts like dinosaurs. In theory, the show, and the tour it is a part of, is supposed to promote the band's latest recording. But watching veteran members Neville "Judge Rough Neck" Staples, Roddy "Radiation" Byers, Lynval Golding, and Horace "Gentleman" Panter dizzily churn out 17-year-old rude boy anthems -- like "Guns of Navarone," "Ghost Town," "Rat Race," and "Concrete Jungle" -- gave the whole event the distasteful feel of a musical revue. Who needs the present when you are living in the past?

Now, unlike most attendees, I had not seriously listened to ska for close to seven years. It was the college years that did it to me. Sooner or later, all of the intense, late-night discussions with fellow music-nerds recovering from the post-traumatic stress of high school symphonic band make you realize that life is short, ears are precious, and jamming to a high-energy dance music like ska shouldn't be attempted more than a couple of times a year. Especially when the music in question stopped evolving around 1984. Still, the crowd ate up the argument that the Specials (aka Special A.K.A., aka Special A.K.A. the Automatics, aka the Cauvington Automatics) pushed for 90 minutes, and through three encores: Why bother with growth and innovation when the strains of yesterday can be made to sound so gosh-darn fresh today?

-- Victor Haseman

Brown Album

Some people think shit jokes, and toilet humor in general, are the cheapest sort of laugh, appealing only to our ever-alert inner chimpanzee, and not to our dormant and vestigial Eustace Tilley. But toilet humor can be rather clever, even elegant. In the movie Naked Gun, there's a scene where Leslie Nielsen unknowingly steps into a restroom during a press conference with a live radio mike pinned to his lapel. And, you betcha, the sound of his urine stream cascading into the bowl, and through the public address system as the actors struggle for just the right combination of horror and embarrassment in their facial expressions, is hilarious. But even better was the piss joke's setup. The way that seemingly superfluous visual info (Nielsen drinking a big glass of water in the background while someone else speaks at the podium), innocuous developments (the podium mike faltering as Nielsen steps up; the subsequent offering of the radio mike), and suspicion of the impending gag (Nielsen sneaking off to the men's room, glancing back at the podium with some desperation) all made the joke work. The sheer architecture of it was admirable, almost virtuosic.

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