All you punks? Check. Rude boys? Check. Rude girls? Check. White boys? Check. Black boys? Hmmm. Whatever its musical legacy, it seems that the multi-cultural aspect of the 2 Tone audience has faded somewhat over the years. Maybe it’s a Dublin thing, maybe not but at least there are a fair share of younger folk in the Olympia, rubbing shoulders with those who were there first time around and giving the night a welcome injection of youthful energy. They’re here because The Specials’ light has failed to dim over the years, despite a succession of less than convincing reunions in the late ’90s (State remembers seeing The Special Beat – a half and half combination with those other ska revivalists – in a tiny club somewhere during that time). Unlike some comebacks, their nearly full reunion has done nothing to harm their status. So far at any rate.
Yet there is a sense that something isn’t quite right for this, their fifth Irish return (Cork and Belfast have also been on the agenda). After struggling in their less than natural environment of Oxegen, their last visit to the Olympia felt like a genuine event, a last chance to see them in the flesh. Two and a half years later, they’re still here. Or most of them at any rate. Following Jerry Dammers’ decision not to join the party, they’re now another man down after Neville Staple’s departure due to ill health. While the keyboard player and founding member was replaced fairly easily with a virtual doppelganger, the vocalist’s shoes are harder to fill. In truth, they miss his presence greatly – not only in terms of his exuberant live persona but also his musical contribution. Only when it’s gone, do you realise how important his toasting and Jamaican vocals were to the band’s overall sound. Thus there’s a feeling of imbalance tonight, despite Lynval Goulding’s best efforts on both fronts.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an awful lot of fun. How could it not be when you’re watching the Olympia lose its collective nut to ‘Gangsters’ and ‘Monkey Man’? Or secretly yearning for an age when pop bands could write songs as politically pointed as ‘Rat Race’ and ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’? ‘Ghost Town’ is still one of the most messed up records ever to top the charts and sounds huge tonight, quickly followed by the unadulterated joy of ‘A Message To You, Rudy’. It’s certainly not, however, the dawning of any sort of new era. Unsurprisingly given their limited catalogue, this is essentially the same show as last time – the hits peppered with album tracks – and while there was a context around that 30th Anniversary trip, this is starting to feel as if we’re all going through the motions. Like Pixies and Blur before them, what was suggested as a one-off return has run and run and you hope that the magic doesn’t start to wear off. These reservations aside, there is a joy in watching musicians with this much history still enjoying their craft. Perhaps that’s why they’re still doing the rounds, unwilling to let go for the final time, but sometimes if you love something you have to set it free.