Claire and I were lucky enough to see the Jerry Dammers Spacial AKA Orchestra last night in Brighton at the start of their UK tour. The Sun Ra inspired (or Sun Ra tribute band as Dammers has called it), merged jazz, funk, reggae, ska and hip hop in a huge cosmic blender that led to a standing ovation at the end of a blistering two and a half hour set. Only 3 of Dammers own songs were covered, International Jetset (renamed Interspacial Jetset), Ghost Town and Man At C&A. All three took on a new power with an 18 piece orchestra behind them and it was great to see Rico Rodriquez on stage again as he joined them for the last two of these. The oldest person on stage Dammers announced, had to be helped to his feet for the trombone solos that sent shivers down my back - this Jamaican legend can still play. The orchestra consisted of a brass section, double bass and electric bass, guitar, vibraphone, flute, percussion, drums and a second keyboardist to compliment Dammers own distinctive style. Smatterings of vocals were provided by French chanteuse Francine Luce and poet Anthony Joseph. The carefully selected reggae covers that were reworked into jazz/dub frenzies and the Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra numbers that Dammers had rearranged created a heady mix and it really was one of those special performances. The stage was adorned throughout by mannequins dressed in space garb and Egyptian head wear, as were most of the band resplendent in masks and capes. A mock space craft hung precariously above the keyboard player and the backdrop VJing mixed abstract imagery and planetary visuals with footage of people dancing. The whole theatricality of the evening was planned down to a tee and even Adam West made an appearance on the screen above the stage during a jazz reworking of the Batman theme. At the end of the set the band, minus Dammers, exited the stage through the audience, still playing, and proceeded into the bar where they played for a further 20 minutes free styling acoustically as the audience joined them and danced around to the bemusement of The Dome staff. There wasn't a single person leaving the venue without a huge grin on their face.
Throughout Dammers was entertaining as compare, conductor and keyboard madman, turning from a touching story about his fathers death to Sun Ra nonsensical cosmic ramblings. These only added to the feeling of warmth and integrity of a man inspired and at his peak of ingenuity. Make no mistake, The Specials were a band of major importance for so many different reasons, and although I'm never personally comfortable with the idea of cash fueled nostalgia trips, their gigs last year did look pretty good from the times I've caught them on TV. However, we must thank Ra that Dammers opted out of this in protest at the commercial meanderings that were attached and the unwillingness of others in the band to update their old material or write new songs. For if Dammers had gone along with the reformation he may not have seen his Spacial AKA vision through and that would have been a great loss. If they are playing at a venue near you and you can get a ticket, it'll be the best £20 you'll spend all year, I guarantee.
For reviews of last years Barbican gigs and video clips go to: