Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Stiff Little Fingers @ Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street Ballroom
Sunday, June 5, 2011
216 Guilford Avenue

The Boys Are Back in Town: SLF originals Jake Burns & Ali McMordie rock the Bourbon Street casbah

As part of Amy's musical nostalgia trip (officially known as "It's a Retro Virus: A Remembrance of Things Punk"), we jumped into the Wayback Machine to see Stiff Little Fingers play at Bourbon Street (formerly one of Hammerjacks' multiple locations) Sunday night. We skipped the two opening bands (and were told by our friend Greg Brazeale that ours was fortuitous timing), arriving at 9:30-ish to see a set by the Belfast punks that was basically a little over an hour - that is, before the requisite encore performance of "Alternative Ulster" and two other songs. We quickly spotted Greg Brazeale and his friend Joe, who brought their sons to the gig, with Greg wearing his bootleg "No Sleep In Belfast" t-shirt documenting the stops he and Joe made when they traveled across the Pond this spring to see their fave Irish punks play in their native land (with Greg immediately apologizing for misspelling original drummer Brian Faloon's name!). And word had it that mega-SLF fan Mike Milstein (current Chelsea Graveyard guitarist and former Thee Katatonix guitarist under the nome de stage "Steevee Squeegee") was there too, but alas we never saw him.

No Sleep In Belfast: Another SLF show, another pub!

Admittedly, I was never a rabid SLF fanboy. My Northern Ireland band of choice was always the less-political/more poppy Undertones from (London)Derry. I didn't even know that former Jam bass player Bruce Foxton played with the band circa 1991-2006, before orginal bassist Ali McMordie rejoined the group. But I liked what little tunes I had heard from the pen of main songwriter (and Van Morrison-lookalike) Jake Burns and ertswhile lyricist Gordon Ogilvie (the British journalist who encouraged the boys to write about the then-raging "Troubles" and later became their manager) - passionate anthemic rockers like "Alternative Ulster," "Gotta Getaway" and "Tin Soldiers." They were angry young men back then, and who can blame them, given the times? As Jake Burns said, quoting poet Brenden Behan's famous quip: "If this is what you call a civil war, I'd hate to see a fucking uncivil war!"

I hadn't been to what was once one of many Hammerjacks relocations in at least a decade, but liked it - though I probably wouldn't come down here for the usual fare, like "Bikini Bull Riding with the Girls of Scores." (OK, maybe I would - but not with Amy!) The sound was nice, the venue big and roomy with unobstructed sight lines. Amy recalled seeing Queen's Brian May here for a free solo tour show years ago. (Amy can, a la "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," relate almost any happenstance in life back to Queen. Just the other night, I was showing her an episode of the BBC crime comedy-drama New Tricks that not only featured a theme song by erstwhile Queen producer Mike Moran, but also an appearance by Brian May's wife Anita Dobson - who surprised Amy by dropped her EastEnders cockney accent to sound posh in this episode).

Anyway, the show started promptly at 9:30 and we promptly made a beeline for the sidelines (along with anyone else with a drink or cellphone camera) as a large group of mosh pit dancers started a twirling, whirling dervish of activity stage front-and-center. The choreography was like a particulary violent and chaotic approximation of a Glee musical number, with clothing accessories courtesy of Hot Topic (did anyone NOT have a studded belt or wrist bracelet on?) - or perhaps back-in-the-day hand-me-downs from Sticky Fingers in Fell's Point. Perhaps their duds were sold to them by Sticky Fingers owner Rudy, who was spotted hanging on the stage rail (as shown below).

Rudy can't fail - to be spotted railside

These guys were amusing (though we made sure we kept our amused glances at a safe distance), especially one goofball with a Krusty the Clown tri-parted mohawk who was dancing a jig while carefully cupping his 24-ounce beer can so he wouldn't spill any of its precious contents. In between drinking and running to the bathroom (at least a half dozen trips by my guestimate), the mobile moshers actually stopped to watch a couple of numbers.

Introducing the band, frontman Jake Burns took time out to announce some bad news: regular touring guitarist Ian McCallum had taken ill and was currently "in hospital." But the "Silver Lining" was news that John Haggerty (Naked Raygun, Pegboy) was filling in for McCallum on the tour. I didn't know either guitarist from Adam, but if Haggerty was an SLF ringer, you'd never know it - he played with confidence and authority like he knew the songs by heart - which he apparently did!

Back to Front: John Haggerty (left) filled in for ill SLF guitarist Ian Mccallum

After a couple of rock-and-rollicking opening salvos, Jake Burns took time out to talk about inspirations. You know where this one's headed: this is where The Clash comparisons and hommages come in (and explains why "Clash City Mocker" Dave Cawley wasn't there!).

SLF strummer Jake Burns: inspired by Joe Strummer

I've always "heard" SLF as an Irish Clash (nothing wrong with that!), albeit without their musical curiosity (though both bands toyed with ska and reggae). Others certainly back me up on this...for example, this is from a review of SLF's Clash-infused debut album Inflammable Material from punk site starling.rinet.ru:
"The recording leaves a lot to be desired, the song structures aren't incredibly sophisticated, and the band plays like punks, which means without a lot of skill but a lot of spirit, but despite the shortcomings the band comes roaring through. "Suspect Device" is the best known and also best song here, and "Wasted Life", "Alternative Ulster", the cover of Bob Marley's "Johnny Was" are all pretty great, too. In fact, most of the tunes here are good, seething with rage delivered by Jake Burns, who always sounds like he's screaming at the top of his lungs with laryngitis, yet the Fingers never forget the importance of a sturdy melody. The downside is that over the course of an album, the Fingers' lack of stylistic variety becomes wearying. Comparisons to the Clash are telling - the Clash were a great band because they covered a lot of musical territory brilliantly; the Fingers are simply a really good band because they only do one thing, but they do it very well. Rightly considered a punk classic, though non-devotees of the genre won't find much of interest."

That said, Burns talked about how much he loved The Clash - "...and especially Joe Strummer, may he rest in peace!" - to which the audience roared its approval (especially the Mosh Pit Contingent, who rattled their studded metal bracelets in appreciation).

"I only met him a few times," Burns continued, "and one of those times he tried to nick my duty-free booze! But I forgive 'im - I'd have done the same to 'im and he knows it!" He then led the band into the rousing hero-worship shout-out "Strummerville," whose lyrics say it all:
"So thanks for giving me my creed
I'll try to stay on side
For helping me to dare to dream
After all this time
Cos I still see you up there
On a stage and playing
Yeah, I still see you up there
I still agree with what you're saying"

The song ended with a rousing, fist-pumping chorus of "Clash Clash, Clash City Rockers!" I thought Ali the bass player was gonna hit the ceiling, he was so pumped up!

But SLF weren't done with Joe yet, as they later trotted out The Clash version of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law," which really thrilled the neo-punk stationed at the front of the stage wearing a vest emblazoned with the motto: "A pig is still a pig!"

A little later, Jake Burns announced "This next song's by a band from Conventry," to which Amy the Coventry Cover Songs Specialist screamed, "Yes! The Specials!" Spot on, Amy! SLF proceeded to count off the ska-infused beat to a cover of "Doesn't Make It Alright" that originally appeared on SLF's 1980 LP Nobody's Heroes.

I didn't know most of the subsequent songs, but Amy sure did, pointing out "Just Fade Away" (about a doting girl who wouldn't take the hint about alienation of affections), "Tin Soldiers" ("He joined up to get a job and show he wasn't scared/Swapped boy scout hat for army cap, he thought he'd be prepared" - a song inspired by an AWOL soldier who followed SLF from town to town, lamenting the dearth of "career opportunities" for poor working class lads other than the military), "Nobody's Hero," "Wasted Life," and "Suspect Device" among them. All setting up the obvious, and glorious encore rendition of "Alternative Ulster" - still my favorite SLF number, and one on which Burns still goes hoarse as he spits out the refrain: "They say they're a part of you - but that's not true you know/They say they've got control of you - and that's a lie you know/They say you will never be free, free, free!"

It still gets to me, even 30 some odd years later. And it all still gets to Amy (and Greg and Joe and Mike) the same today as yesterday.

Related Links:
Official website (www.slf.com)

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