Perhaps one of the Arroyo Seco Weekend festival’s best and most overlooked aspects was the opportunity to see The Specials up close without having to put up with their usual audience.
Just weeks before this concert, some friends of mine on a music forum were trading stories on the topic: what was the most violent, crazy show you ever experienced? And particularly among the English members old enough to have been going to gigs in 1980, the name “The Specials” came up with great regularity. Tales were told of massive brawls, bottlings, fisticuffs galore.
Little had changed by the time I saw them in 2009, easily one of the craziest and most violent shows I ever was at. Boot boys were throwing fives and pouring full beers everywhere – on the bouncers, on the mixing desk, and all over everyone in their path in some archaic baptismal ritual. The band had to ask, nay, demand that the crowd stop spitting on them. “This is 2009, not 1979!” hollered Neville Staple, as Terry Hall spoke up, “You MUST stop, or else I’m coming down there to smash your fucking face in.” I had not witnessed a scene so out-there belligerent in many years, and I have not since. Not for nothing was that football cheer of “You’re going home in a fuck-ing ambulance” that kicks off “Concrete Jungle”–in the flesh, it seemed like a real possibility.
But the reason that everyone puts up with such treatment is obvious. There was no way we were leaving the room while that band was playing in it. We’d have to be dragged out bodily, if that’s what it took.
The scene at Arroyo Seco was placid by comparison. A sizable crowd of people welled up, and some of them danced. As it turned out, not many skinheads had opted for the gate price, with the proximity to hippies on the other side of the fence serving as a further deterrent. The boot boys were outnumbered. The number of casualties was probably nil.
The group is down a couple of original members from that 2009 show–original drummer John Bradbury passed away in 2015, and co-lead vocalist Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation have had to bow out of recent tours for health reasons. It’s not quite the same without them there. Former Libertines drummer Gary Powell does a fine job behind the kit. There’s nothing wrong with Steve Cradock’s guitar playing which is generally faithful and in good taste. It’s likely for the best that they didn’t try to replace Staple with a young gun to sing his parts – guitarist Lynval Golding does his best to pick up the call-and-response vocal exchanges with Hall. Nonetheless, it has to be said that their absence is felt.
But it’s impossible to actually live in the past, and even if some of its classic lineup is MIA, it’s still a great pleasure to hear this band slam into its best songs with precision and energy. When they are really on, as with a shimmering, blown-down version of “Friday Night-Saturday Morning”, or the frenzy-inducing stompers like “Monkey Man” and “Too Much Too Young”, they’re pure magic, as brilliant as a band can be. Arroyo Seco’s first day had its share of history lessons, but this one came across as endlessly vital.