Saturday, May 3, 2008

Stiff Little Fingers, House of Blues Sunset Strip. May 2, 2008.

Yesterday evening brought a rare and much needed visit from Stiff Little Fingers to Los Angeles; aside from the dreadful location (House of Blues being on the Sunset Strip, where stilettos are plenty and parking averages to about $20), the occasion was actually a nearly perfect punk show. The crowd was one of the most respectful audiences I've experienced, a fair mixture of dolled-up girls, aging men (some with their kids) and high schoolers psyched to be wearing SLF shirts in front of SLF.

The band itself has actually aged quite well both in looks and sound; only half of the original lineup remains, core and front man Jake Burns, and bassist Ali McMordie, who'd returned after SLF experienced a 15-year stint with the Jam's Bruce Foxton. Steve Grantley, the band's fourth drummer since 1977, has an incredible fighting spirit in eyes and arms, and guitarist Ian McCallum, bringing balance, has the quietest presence and hides behind cap and pokerface.

Stiff Little Fingers are an incredible live band as much as they are recorded, and though there was certainly a preference for their earlier material on this night, as the audience actually picked up momentum and moved more as the night grew darker and material grew older, Burns offered the story behind nearly each song so as to demonstrate how relevant even the newer songs are to this day. Whether sharing that lyrics written for George Sr. during the original Gulf War were able to trickle down to a new Bush generation and new war, or revealing that “Tin Soldiers” was written with a particular man's story in mind, Burns made clear that these songs – from the '70s or the '90s – still rang true and important in the present.

Burns was also ridiculously humble, if not self-deprecating, and though applauded for mention of the 50th birthday he'd celebrated recently, he responded with a self-pitying, “That's right, not just fat, but old, too!” Sure, he's put on a few pounds, but he's still got a lot of youth in his face, and he's still got a lot of his signature growl, only now he's more selective about when to use it. He still also churns out a flawless guitar solo, currently using a beautiful pale yellow ESP lined in black and adorned with a Daffy Duck sticker. One of my personal music fantasies of not long ago, actually, was to have the chance to see SLF live if only to hear Burns play in person the solo that introduces their incredible cover of “Johnny Was.” Sure enough, this was made a reality through the first of two encores, and yes, it was every bit as fantastic as expected.

My eyes well up with pride at the idea that a band this brilliant exists or even existed at any point. You can hear that perfection in the opening note of “Alternative Ulster,” or the way Burns growls before the band kicks in on “78 RPM.” Thirty years after Inflammable Material, they've offered somewhat of a mixed bag of recorded material, musically, but when you watch them perform – fuck if they haven't still got it.

There's a new Stiff Little Fingers album in the works for this year. 2008 tour dates remain, including one Ireland date in June with Iggy Pop and the Kills (I envy you Irish bastards!).

And while on the topic of a band that sang of Belfast, this was in the news this morning.

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