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Uncut July 2007

More Spatials: The glorious cosmic return of Jerry Dammers

Nick Hasted

It’s the sight Specials fans thought they’d never see again: Jerry Dammers grinning at the keyboards, leading a band through a triumphant set. The Egyptian robes and masks worn by him and his 13 fellow musicians make it clear, though, that this show is no rehash of old 2-Tone glories. Rather, Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra are a space-jazz big band, specialising in the sounds of Sun Ra.

Dammers has hardly been near a stage since the fractious end of The Specials. Apart from an unofficial gig at Glastonbury in 1994, and a set by this band last year at London’s Roundhouse, Dammers has restricted his appearance to DJ slots. May concluded he was a spent force after the crippling cost of The Special AKA’s In The Studio (1984), and years of anti-Apartheid charity work. “This has taken me by surprise,” he admits. “If I’d had time to think about it, I’d never have done it.”

But the show at Dartington Hall, Devon o April 27 is an exhilarating comeback. The crowd grow increasingly raucous as the Spatials tear through tunes by Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Italian soundtrack maestros, and the Batman theme, an avant-hip-hop-jazz collective underpinned by the long lost sound of Dammers at the keyboards. The gig ends outside in the courtyard, the masked musicians sending the tribal pulse of Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” into the West Country dark.

2-Tne co-founder and ex-Specials manager Rick Rogers, who invited Dammers to Devon, is moved almost to tears, telling Uncut the emotional effort it has taken Dammers to get onstage again. Later that night Dammer’s blissful grin tells its own story.

“I was nervous,” he gushes, “because I’d hardly played for such a long time. It was the hardest word I’ve ever done – back to square one, lugging amps around by hand. But I feel elated, blown away. There were once moments like I’d never experienced before, where all the band was going mental. It was free of all the constraints of pop. One of the things about The Specials that got to me in the end, was that you go out and do the same thing night after night. This is the opposite.”

Taking the Sun Ra route happened almost by accident, with that hastily conceived Roundhouse gig. But Dammers sees connections with his glory days. “It’s the spirit of Sun Ra’s creativity, rather than trying to copy him,” he explains. “What we’re doing is like ska, missing jazz with a dance street rhythm.”

He speaks eagerly of where this is heading. “I’d like it to develop quite rapidly, so that every gig’s special. I’d like to pay in fields and railway stations and on cliffs. I’ve already bought a generator. The first gig was completely Sun Ra. Now I’d like to work in some of my thing as well.”

For the man who wrote “Ghost Town”, but whose muse has been silent since 1984, something has suddenly stirred.