I got to The Academy too early, so I was stuck in an empty room listening to The Clash’s greatest hits sitting next to some British punk looking guys and an American girl whose conversation I couldn’t help over hear as the room half-filled in time for the support act. “This is the first record I ever stole” exclaimed one of the lads with pride. The Clash was appropriate as I always thought Stiff Little Fingers wanted to suck Joe Strummer’s cock and ripped off his style, that’s not a bad thing because their debut “Inflammable Material” is a classic.
The Lee Harvey’s came on and played their set of paint-by-numbers three-chord punk. Lead singer/guitarist “Bitzy” liked to tell the crowd what his songs are about; “this one’s about speed” (Amphetamine), “this one’s about Dublin” (Psychoville), “this one is for anyone who’s ever been arrested” (Here Come The Cops). They seemed uninterested and even went as far as to check their watches, before Bitzy announced they’d be staying just long enough to fulfil their contractual obligations. Punk or what? There was a moment of demolition when the drummer’s crash fell over mid performance and a stage hand took out a metal barrier trying to climb over it to sort it out. That’s as energetic as it got, apart from one guy who was skanking on his own on a mostly empty dance floor for their entire set.
Stiff Little Fingers took the stage much later on and were warmly greeted by the crowd who now filled the venue. The crowd had a significant percentage of bald heads and leather jackets, mixed in a smaller percentage of younger hipsters and folks who looked like they’d raided Johnny Rotten’s old stage clothes wardrobe, they were keeping the taps flowing at the bar all night.
Vocalist/lead guitar Jake Burns now fifty-three years old, dressed in a shirt with an upside down guitar motif dispensed with pleasantries and began with “Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae”, the crowd was already on his side and the sing along began, they went seamlessly into “Hope Street” and then into “At The Edge”. “At The Edge” highlighted the irony of a 50 something man singing a song about being young and finding your way in a world you find scary. Then they played a “Guitar & Drum” for “anyone who’s had to sit through that X-Factor shite”, a formulaic rock song with lyrics made of cheese and didn’t receive much of a reaction: the audience seemed to be waiting for their older stuff.
Instead what we got was a never heard before song, entitled “Full Steam Backward” which Burns informed us he wrote after his 50th birthday trying to reflect his “position as an elder statesman”. This was actually a rocking tune, heads nodding everywhere, even if the lyrics were cringe inducing “You’ve got a good job, don’t want to be another slob”, clearly he knows his audience, a mid-life crisis song about mid-life crises. Nice.
Before “Barbed Wire Love” Burns told us it’s the closest they ever came to writing a love song, and that he reckoned it’s a pretty crap one at that, fair enough Jake. He played it anyway “All you gave me was barbed wire love… barbed wire love snags my jeans”. Burns quite likes to tell little stories before his songs, I heard someone behind me remark “He talks a lot”. Before “Harp” he told us about how the word had been a term of racial abuse in America for the Irish, and he’d been inspired to write a song about it, he punctuated the chorus line “Don’t call me Harp” by pointing at the crowd, every single time.
Burns is a great guitarist, there was a dissonance between his awkward moves on the stage and the cool confident guitar coming out of the speakers. When I say awkward moves I mean at one point he did a slight chicken walk around his mic, whilst pumping out a killer guitar solo. Towards the end of their set they played Burn’s tribute to Joe Strummer “Strummerville”, which in a rambling fashion he told us he wrote after Strummer’s death. More cringing from me; “Clash! Clash! Clash city rocker!”.
“Tin Soldier” really got the crowd going with the moshing in front of the stage reaching fever pitch and everyone around me singing along, afterwards it was straight into a song which needed no introduction and thankfully there wasn’t one “Suspect Device”, the crowd went nuts. Every single word sung along, every fist pumping. It was slightly surreal to me to hear an entire room mostly comprised of people old enough to be my dad roaring “We’re gonna blow up in your face!” as the song ended. Stiff Little Fingers left the stage after an old fashioned line-up and bow, before coming back on to the first of two encores to shouts of “Fingers! Fingers!”.
They played The Clash’s timeless “I Fought The Law” which the audience loved before their classic “Alternative Ulster” which was as powerful and energetic as it should be, which is to say very, Burn’s now drenched in sweat and really enjoying himself. For the second encore they finished out with an extended version of “Johnny Was” which is definitely where the band peaked in gusto, clearly loving the atmosphere as much as the crowd. They thanked the audience and assured us we’d see them again.
Stiff Little Fingers have a well deserved following they’ve brought with them though the years, they know how to put on an old fashioned punk-rock show and the strength of their jerky early punk rock compositions still captures the interest of newer fans like me.
By Conor Keaney