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"This is an old Irish folk song," announced Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns before the very last song of the show. After an entire set of some of the band's best material, it could only be "Alternative Ulster," and as the song began, the crowd, punk rockers older and younger, seemed to go wild instantly with enthusiastic dancing and even a "friendly" circle pit of sorts fully broke out, after threatening to the rest of the night. And it was for this song that Burns and the boys, including bassist Mark Derosa, drummer Steve Grantley and guitarist Ian McCallum, somehow pulled in extra reserves of energy and enthusiasm for one big blowout if the crowd proved worthy and this one did. This racuous climax was the perfect ending to a set that started off with a track that has apparently been a tradition for Stiff Little Fingers on its recent tours, "Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae." An unequivocal call to a grassroots effort to end war, all war. Which is something this band knows a bit about coming of age in Northern Ireland during the apex of "The Troubles," witnessing that madness firsthand. While those expecting a seething punk rock show probably picked the wrong band to see, those expecting to that spirit to be embodied in what the music was about selected well. While the Fingers were clearly inspired by their teenage brush with the Clash, the band also seemed to have genuine musical chops, fairly natural or otherwise, and Burns is possessed of a singular melodic voice with some force behind it, like Elvis Costello but more upbeat. So although this show was not some raging punk rock extravaganza, it was a reminder that this group not only made punk accessible, it didn't dumb down that spirit. During "Listen," Burns pumped his fist and held his guitar up during the choruses and thereby seemed to raise the energy level of the room all on his own. And following that song up with a rousing cover of "Doesn't Make It Alright" by the Specials got the crowd moving, right down to the hearty yell Burns unleashed toward the end of the song.
Before "Strummerville," Burns told us how everyone, at some point in their lives, is influenced by someone or something, but that for his band it was the Clash. Apparently Burns had only met Joe Strummer two or three times, during one of which Strummer drank all of Burns' whiskey, but that Strummer gave him and the rest of the band the courage to get on stage and sing those songs.
The between song banter made it evident that the guys in this band -- or at least Burns -- still believe in the power of art, especially music, to change the world, a quaint notion that we need more of in these troubled times, especially among people old enough to remember a world before Thatcher and Reagan came to power.
This sort of idealism seemed to inspire the thinking for "Wasted Life," during which the first crowd surfer was carried aloft near the front of the stage. The band ended its set with "Suspect Device," which really got the crowd going and for the first time, as mentioned previously, the attempt at a pit became more than just a shadow of itself.
The crowd wasn't done with the band yet and the guys came back on for an encore of the Bob Marley & The Wailers classic "Johnny Was." Hearing the band make roots reggae not seem like a thing of the past and embodying the spirit of the song with its performance was impressive.
And the show would have ended there, but there was such a clamor from the audience that the outfit came back on for a rendition of "I Fought the Law," which Burns said every band on the planet had murdered. And so did Stiff Little Fingers, only in the best way possible. Closing the show with "Alternative Ulster," Stiff Little Fingers couldn't have ended on a better note.
Click through to read more about the other acts on the bill.
After Red Stinger's set, Brent Loveday of Reno Divorce later joked that it looked like Red Stinger had brought its whole family on stage, probably because that's about what it looked like with one little boy strumming a guitar that was clearly not wired for sound and another little fella tapping the tops of the monitors in front of him like he was playing drums (not half bad, by the way). The boys, of course, shared the stage with the four actual members of Red Stinger and two female back-up singers. The music was the kind of melodic punk rock in the vein of Hot Water Music and its ilk, but made it better than the pop punk that plagued the early part of the last decade. When the band made its almost pathetic plea for people to buy its merch before the last two songs of its set, it was kind of endearing and let us know they didn't take themselves too seriously. Either way, Red Stinger didn't skimp on the enthusiasm. At the end, some guy in the audience kept yelling what sounded like "Step it up!" as though these guys really could have given more of themselves. Turns out, he was yelling "Set Up," the name of one of the band's songs, so clearly there were fans in attendance. Reno Divorce was up next, and it started off a set of urgent, bluesy punk with "A .45 Will Pay the Rent." With obvious nods to pre-mid '90s Social Distortion and the Smithereens, Reno Divorce nonetheless acquitted themselves well for reasons not so obvious. Brent gave the crowd a hard time with some friendly but serious jibes about how people in the back sure could come toward the front, followed by playful digs that "You seem really tired." Before long, enough people seemed to be dancing and some even sang along to some of the songs like "Ill Gotten Gains" and the show closer, "Say It." Loveday engaged the crowd throughout, giving the sense that the worldweariness and the need to fight against that sort of thing was not an act. There seemed to be a very real compassion coming from Loveday for people and their everyday struggles. You could hear it in the lyrics, even though they were framed in lively punk rock tunes, and it was in the way he talked about being a flawed human being and embracing that fact, and it was not at all ironic the way he talked about having children.
It's easy for a band to be good and enjoyable, but it's harder to get a sense of a band as people, but this performance seemed to eliminate that barrier to a high degree. Make no mistake, though, the band was as tight as they come and knew how to draw you in with well crafted, dynamic songs.
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Personal Bias: I really appreciate a band that can say something scathingly political without coming off preachy. Random Detail: Ran into Pete Sisson of the Conjugal Visits at the show right before he had to head over to Old Curtis St. to play his own set. By the Way: It seems like Stiff Little Fingers is criminally overlooked in histories of and documentaries on punk.