REVIEW: Stiff Little Fingers, O2 Academy, Newcastle

Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns in action at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.
Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns in action at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.
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Some bands seem to get better with age, like a vintage wine. Stiff Little Fingers are one of those bands.

Formed in Belfast in 1977, they were part of the second wave of punk, following in the footsteps of pioneers like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Buzzcocks.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then: hit records, near misses, a break-up in 1983, a reformation in 1989, and various members joining and leaving.

Many of their earliest songs were about growing up in Northern Ireland during 'the Troubles', and they are songs which still form the backbone of their setlist today.

No SLF gig would be complete without Suspect Device, Nobody's Hero, Barbed Wire Love and about a dozen other stone-cold Fingers classics.

That's why, a few years ago, going to a live show became little more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane; you could name most of the songs, and have a reasonable guess at the order in which they'd be played.

Stiff Little Fingers bass player Ali McMordie performing at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

Stiff Little Fingers bass player Ali McMordie performing at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

That all changed in 2014 when they delivered No Going Back, their 10th studio album, their first in a decade, and their best in more than 30 years.

An injection of new songs brought fresh energy to their gigs, and even veteran Fingers fans say they've never sounded better live than in the last couple of years.

That was certainly the case at the packed O2 Academy, where they rolled back the years with another powerhouse performance.

They could have been forgiven for having an off-night; after all, this Newcastle show was the night after St Patrick's Day, when the band traditionally play at Barrowland in Glasgow.

Stiff Little Fingers guitarist Ian McCallum at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

Stiff Little Fingers guitarist Ian McCallum at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

It was the 25th year in a row they've played the Barras on St Paddy's, a show filmed for a live DVD and album, after a fan-funded Pledge Music campaign reached its target in little over 24 hours - proof, if any were needed, of the astonishing loyalty they inspire.

But there's no such thing as 'phoning in' a performance where Stiff Little Fingers are concerned, and they blazed through their 90-minute set like their lives depended on it.

The one constant throughout the band's 39-year career has been frontman and main songwriter Jake Burns.

He, bass player Ali McMordie (an original member who rejoined 10 years ago), long-time drummer Steve Grantley and rhythm guitarist Ian McCallum are a formidable unit, and didn't put a foot wrong from the first chords of opener Wasted Life to the closing Alternative Ulster.

Stiff Little Fingers drummer Steve Grantley at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

Stiff Little Fingers drummer Steve Grantley at the O2 Academy. Pic: Gary Welford.

The fact many of the audience aren't getting any younger was brought home by the dedication of several songs to those who are sadly no longer with us: Strummerville (inspired by Joe Strummer), Doesn't Make It Alright (for John Bradbury, the drummer from The Specials, who SLF stole the song from), and When We Were Young (for Burns' old friend Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy).

Injustice often inspires Burns' lyrics, and that was the case with songs old (Silver Lining - still relevant, with the Tory Government taking £30 a week from the disabled while they give their rich friends tax breaks) and new (Guilty As Sin - about the institutionalised cover-up of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic church).

One of his best songs in years is the much more personal My Dark Places, about his battle with depression, and it was played with a fire befitting a band of teenagers, not 50-somethings.

Near the end, old favourite Gotta Getaway was wheeled out as an encore "because I'm sick of hearing tribute bands trying to play it and doing it badly - if anyone's going to play it badly, it should be us!"

On this showing, there's plenty of life left in Stiff Little Fingers yet. As Nobody's Hero says, "what you see is what you get", and next year's 40th anniversary shows promise to be something really special.