While the Specials have latterly reunited without founder Jerry Dammers for a series of tours, their former leader has been pursuing his quixotic Spatial AKA Orchestra. It began as a tribute to the avant-jazz polymath Sun Ra, but tonight Dammers and his orchestra of 22 musicians also trace a diasporic lineage from Dixieland jazz to the Jamaican pop that first inspired Dammers, and beyond.
While the stage is peopled by futuristic mannequins and a spaceship hangs from the ceiling, Dammers is less interested in Sun Ra's sci-fi trappings than in his music's revolutionary and emotional power. Sung by Francine Luce and arranged by Dammers, Ra's I'll Wait for You is reborn tonight as a haunting interstellar lament, while the big band revel in the drama of a bristling Soul Vibrations of Man.
In addition to ska covers performed with former Specials singer Neville Staple and Jamaican crooner Cornell Campbell - with trombonist Rico Rodriguez singing a spirited Oh Carolina, despite a recent hip replacement - the Orchestra also revisit Dammers' own back catalogue. It being Nelson Mandela's birthday, Free Nelson Mandela is recast by vocalist MC Supa Four as a plea for world peace, while a mashup of the Specials' apocalyptic Man at C&A with Sun Ra's Nuclear War seems mordantly timely.
After almost four glorious hours, the Orchestra close with Sun Ra's Space Is the Place, joined by all the vocalists, poet Anthony Joseph and Kinetika Bloco (a youth marching band founded by late Orchestra alumnus Mat Fox) for an ecstatic, majestic, cacophonic riot that continues even as the musicians file offstage, through the audience and out into the foyer. No dry history lesson, this was instead something profound and moving, and you bet Dammers wouldn't swap the vindication of a night like this for all the reunion lucre in the world.