Summer Ska Splash – Holmfirth Picturedrome 20/07/19

4 stars (out of 5)

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Well, here’s an odd one. This weekend my daughter is working at the Splendour Festival in Nottingham where The Specials are set to play; and here I am in Holmfirth for the Summer Ska Splash, largely featuring music made by the band and their contemporaries, a number of whom are here in Holmfirth today.

Funny old world, the world of the ‘bitza’ band. So The Specials and their spinoffs and satellites tour in a variety of configurations, none of which, at the present time include Jerry Dammers.

Very strange.

Anyway, we are to convene early as it is a half-six kick off courtesy of The Beat Goes Bang, a mash-up of former members of The Beat (namely drummer Everett Morton and guitarist Neil Dethridge;) and a former Dexy (Keyboard player Mickey Billingham) along with Jason Ensa, Sean Williams and Theo Hockley. Once through the preliminaries, the band is already blowing up a storm when we get the first one in and boy, are they a good listen! “Too Nice To Talk To” was always a top-drawer tune and it still sounds fresh today, played with affection and enthusiasm. For me, though, and I guess many of the assembled, “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the highlight, the sax break truly evoking the spirit of Saxa. And that Everett Morton; whack. For any reggae-rooted music to hold water, the drummer seriously has to know what he or she is doing and this guy is quality. His performance underpinned a sharp and well-received set. These lads play with a refreshing enthusiasm and spring in their step and it looks and is infectious fun – and I’m bopping away and it isn’t even half seven yet. Can’t help feeling we’re getting our money’s worth here tonight!

Next up after an ugly and gratuitously foul-mouthed DJ set by one Fat Piggy from Sheffield, Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels. Monsieur Radiation was the guitarist for The Specials on and off through until 2014; but you can tell his heart was only partly ‘in it’. The Specials were always a sort of punk-ska outfit and the punk influence was always an important part of their appeal; and this guitarist was always at the ‘punkier’ edge of the spectrum. And just to underline this, the first thing they do when they come on is gob in the air. It could have been worse.

Roddy Radiation cuts a dapper figure in blue drapes and crepes and full marks to him, the seemingly unbridgeable gap between punk, ska and rockabilly he seems to cross with ease. The two guitar attack is one beautiful noise especially on “Bonedigging”, “Blues Attack” and “Keep on Learning”; but boy, is he grumpy. ‘I’m Roddy Radiation, apparently,’ he grudgingly concedes and it seems the massed ranks of Ben Shermans, pork pie hats and 2 Tone T shirts have drawn his ire for so many people doing the ‘follower’ thing in terms of dressing up.

Oh, come on.

The gig has been billed as a ‘Summer Ska Splash’. It is Saturday night. Most people are here tonight for a bit of a party. Lighten up, for goodness sake. And anyway, since we seem so keen on upholding the ‘revolt into style’ critique, could I perhaps be permitted to point out that the drapes and crepes thing is also A Style, a similarly mass-produced youth style thing. Once upon a time. You don’t see Elton John spitting out the dummy because half the audience insist on wearing big glasses, do you? Enough, already.

That said, they chop through their set with conviction and yes, there are a few in the audience who can’t quite get to it, find it a bit too ‘rock’. And in the interests of journalistic balance I think I ought to say that some should perhaps be a bit more willing to open minds and ears.

I have to say I absolutely loved it and I probably wasn’t in the majority. He’s some player and his band certainly blow some as well. It is self-evident that this guy and his associates have toured the States extensively and they don’t need anyone to show them how to do the deed. He includes an aggressive and pointy “Rat Race” early in the set and does what for me was the musical highpoint of the entire proceedings in a killer version of “Do Nothing”, for me one of the most underrated Specials songs ever; musically a sort of distorted and creepy version of Keith West’s “Excerpt From a Teenage Opera”, their version has a sort of gothic despair to it.

Absolute tops for entertainment and please don’t stop playing this all night award goes to their fruity and joyful version of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise”, though. Oooohwee, Baby.

Great, but Grumpy.

Which you can’t say about The Neville Staple Band. Departing from The Specials in 2013 allegedly due to ill health, he’s toured his show ever since, mixing The Specials classic repertoire of songs with a few ska faves and hits from the Funboy Three days. From the second they hit the gaffa tape crosses with a joyous, energetic “Gangsters”, the audience singalong of “A Message To You Rudy” through “Swan Lake”, the only duplicate of the entire evening in their version of “Do Nothing”, and the doomy and extremely pertinent “The Lunatics have Taken Over the Asylum”, they were really saying something. Oh – and there’s another one. It was a joyous and happy celebration of a music which still has the power to energize, to uplift, to lively everybody up. And “Ghost Town”. If ever a song hit the nail on the very epicentre of the head at the time, it’s that one. And the onstage rapport between yer main man and his good lady, who acts as chief cheerleader and voice for the notes he isn’t quite equipped to hit, is charming and life-affirming in itself, especially in the context of their terribly sad, grievous and still recent loss.

So would I have preferred to be with daughter at Splendour in Nottingham to see ‘the real thing’ or Holmfirth to see a different spin on ‘the real thing’? Do you want to go and see Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys?

Not really a legitimate or fair question, is it? Holmfirth’s Summer Ska Splash was great fun; and in a way, very ‘real’. You pays your money, you takes your pick.