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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : The Special Beat of the British Ska Era Goes On

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Reviving revivalists may seem like desperately flogging a dead horse, but with the Special Beat, an all-star unit built around veterans of the early ‘80s British ska band the Specials and English Beat, the emphasis clearly is on the “special” in its name.

The band’s exhilarating, ferociously energetic 90-minute set before a furiously dancing, half-filled house at the grand reopening of the refurbished Variety Arts Center on Wednesday did full justice to the rich legacy of that vastly under-recognized period of rock history.

The group initially formed to play one concert three years ago but continued after tapping into yet another resurgence of interest in the up-tempo Jamaican rhythm among youthful fans. The nine-piece line-up recalled the Specials, the flagship band Two-Tone figurehead band, with ex-English Beat vocalist Ranking Roger filling one of the three vocal spots.

In the first of two nights at the Variety Arts, vocalist Finny provided the Terry Hall parts from the old Specials material and displayed admirable aplomb in avoiding the hurdling figures of Roger and ex-Specials vocalist Neville Staples during their incessant kamikaze dashes from side to side of the stage. The instrumental focus fell on the old Specials bass-drum team of Horace Panter and John Bradbury--the best, most versatile and indisputably hardest of the British ska rhythm sections.

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The British ska revival was, in many respects, the apogee of the period when the punk movement was projecting itself as a positive force. The bands’ racially integrated lineups and adamantly anti-racist attitudes, musical mesh of rock energy and Jamaican rhythms with a lyrical blend of political themes with a bop-till-you-drop dance stance joined together most of the principal elements of the era in one scintillating package.

The bulk of the Special Beat set played off the forcefulness and political savvy of Specials hits “Too Much Too Young,” “Concrete Jungle” and “A Message to You Rudy” against the pop leanings and melodic sophistication of such Beat staples as “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Save It for Later,” and the still-amazing version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.” The performance was built around old songs--although an album of new material is on tap for early next year and several labels are reportedly interested in the band--but it was the special ska connection that really set the tone for the performance.

The Special Beat is a revivalist group, but it has come back because of grass-roots fan support, not music-business calculation. The bond between the band and the front rows of the audience was one of genuine fraternity and union. It was apparent in everything from the appreciative smiles among the Special Beat members to the fact that this was one crowd that came to dance and needed absolutely no cajoling or tiresome exhortations to participate.

There were times when the tempo was forced a bit too hard and a few more breathing spells from the up-tempo onslaught would have been welcome. But that’s hitting the quibble zone and the plethora of sweat-drenched T-shirts amongs the happily satiated audience offered ample testament to the power of the Special Beat’s performance.

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It was a marked contrast to the opening set by Rebel Pebbles, which had all the calculated look and sound of some media exec’s rock dream of an all-girl band modeled on the Go-Gos. The Special Beat/Rebel Pebbles bill continues around Southern California with dates tonight at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, the Open Air Theatre in San Diego Saturday and the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Sunday.

Special Beat, No Doubt and the Rebel Pebbles play Sunday at 8 at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. Tickets: $22. Information: (714) 999-9536.


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