It’s that time of year again, when the annual Stiff Little Fingers gig heralds the true beginning of pre-Christmas drinking sessions. If there comes a time when Jake Burns and co. don’t play Dublin we’ll know something has gone wrong, so traditional are these yearly visits by the Stiffs. The band is thirty-five years in the business, and proud, with 35 emblazoned on the speakers and over T-shirts in the merch stand. An early kick-off means that Goldenplec misses all but the final notes of Spear Of Destiny, but we have it on good authority that the support slot was ably filled.
The familiar drum shuffle of Go For It can mean only one thing as the song rings out over the PA and the crowd sing the riff. The band enters in darkness and with a 1-2-3-4 count-in, fists are communally pumped to Wasted Life. Just Fade Away bridges the gap between this and At The Edge, and after a pummelling intro the band move up a gear. It’s one of those game-changing moments as everyone gets into it, the band more visibly so than they did on the previous numbers.
Burns has a few choice words to say about Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell – our Jake has quite the distaste for Pop Idol and X-Factor, and he’s in good company judging by the response before Guitar & Drum. The biggest reactions are as predictable as always, with songs from ‘Inflammable Material’ and ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ setting the place off. The title track from the latter, a response from Burns after their first Top Of The Pops performance, is one of many unifying moment between band and crowd. Bassist Ali McMordie beside him is a charismatic presence throughout the gig, grinning and leaning as far as he can off the stage without toppling over, engaging with everyone he can lay eyes on.
It’s ten years since the last SLF release so it’s about time we had a few new numbers. Trail Of Tears works live due to the powerhouse drumming and celtic twin guitar break, while Silver Lining is about the government taking the money from your pocket – age hasn’t dimmed the anger. In a disarming moment, Burns speaks about his battle with depression before My Dark Places, and the crowd is behind him all the way. When guitarist Ian McCallum takes over on vocal duties for Can’t Get Away With That Burns has the chance to bound around the stage, freed momentarily from frontman duties.
The crowd are at their most vocal for Barb Wire, singing the oo-ee-oo mid-section before a few seconds of a tease and things erupt. The Clash come up in the patter, specifically Joe Strummer, before a heartfelt Strummerville and its Clash City Rockers coda. A couple of early classics round things off, the pit going mad for the both. A drum solo and feedback heavy outro leads from an incendiary Suspect Device into Tin Soldiers, the gig tonight beginning with a 1-2-3-4 count-in and going out on the military 1-2-3-4 of that songs coda and an extended guitar-heavy ending.
Of course, no-one is going anywhere – not when there are a few notable omissions thus far. Drummer Steve Grantley enters alone and begins the snare intro to Johnny Was. He’s joined by Burns and a squall of feedback, and the band build the song piece by piece. It’s a fine performance – a set highlight – and band and crowd gel like never before. After a “good night!” they make to go off, but McMordie is signalling to the drummer to stay put – time constraints mean we get the second encore without the shouty clapping bit. The much-loved Alternative Ulster is as raucous as everyone expects, while Gotta Getaway is sung by all as the crowd-surfers get their final hoorah.
Aside from the new tunes tonight, there are rarely any surprises at a Stiffs gig. There will be moshing. There will be decent banter. There will be a string of stone-cold Stiffs classics, and there will be a stream of sweaty, smiling folk spilling onto Abbey Street and beyond. A good night was expected, and delivered. Roll on next year. Roll on the next thirty-five.