Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Ulster’s finest? You betcha! I’d put my bottom dollar on this and then some. Alongside the likes of The Damned and The Clash this Antrim outfit sits, rightfully, at punk’s top table.
Pioneers to their very nucleus. Formed in Belfast, back in 1977, they’re still going strong and packing a monstrous punch. Stronger than ever judging on the hi-kinetics of this evening’s incendiary performance.
Tonight, the Tramshed, nestling on the Western bank of the River Taff, is rammed to the rafters. An eclectic mix of punks, rockers, metalheads and rockabilly devotees of all ages. It makes for an electric atmosphere that crackles with a tangible charge in the air. March has now become a mark in the diary for the loyal ranks of the Stiff’s fans; gathering together to share a kindred spirit. A celebration of truth to oneself and a sense of everyday justice.
You’re not alone herein, this is a crowd that is keen to embrace. Between the brief interlude before the obligatory encore I turn to my left and exchange some words of wonderment with a clearly happy individual. This guy, Wayne, has flown in from Alaska for these shows! This is the sort of level of dedication that the Stiffs inspire in their fans.
Before the SLF masterclass in all things conflagrant of a punk-driven nature we’re treated to 40-minute trip along memory avenue courtesy of the Slim Jim Phantom Trio. Fronted by the fabled rockabilly character and drummer of the Stray Cats this three-piece entertain a receptive Tramshed gathering from the get go with a blend of the Cats’, a slice of punk and a well-constructed meandering through the inspirations and loves of the Phantom.
Cracking off with the rockabilly essence of the Stray Cats’ ‘Rumble In Brighton’ – winched in off their self-titled 1981 Dave Edmunds produced debut – we’re taken ringside for a South coast showdown between the rockabilly cats and skinheads. The tone is set and dialled in for rock n’ roll with ‘Matchbox’, the classic Carl Perkins track (released on the legendary Sun Records as a b-side to ‘Your True Love’) featuring the deliciously rich tones of San Diego shredder Rex Elle.
Slim Jim, quite literally a stand-up character, has a passion of the 50s “We’ve got Gene and Eddie for ya.” A reference, of sorts, to the Cats’ 1989 single ‘Gene & Eddie.’ With an introductory deep bass, delivered by Jim’s wife Jennie Vee (Eagles Of Death Metal), ‘Say Mama’ is rocked right up. ‘C’Mon Everybody’ takes on a rockabilly shuffle which works a treat.
The Phantom enjoys a natter between tracks sharing his love of all things rock n’ roll. “We had a band, we tried real hard” he notes before adding “Nobody quit, nobody got married, t’was the summer of ’79” before launching helter-skelter into the Stray Cats’ 1980 debut single ‘Runaway Boys.’ With plenty of dancing around the Tramshed this faithful rendition gets a raucous reception.
A single slab of punk surprises a touch as Jennie Vee steps forward and enquires “Is she really going out with him?” Blasting through the loftily revered ‘New Rose’ the buzzsawing of Rex Elle respectfully holds aloft a riotous candle to The Damned’s guitarist, and the track’s writer, Brian James. Punk fuelled rockabilly energy flows thunderously with Jennie Vee and Slim Jim sharing tight vocal harmonies.
We get a further two Stray Cats hits in a prowling ‘Stray Cat Strut’ and the rousing set-closer ‘Rock This Town’ both going down a storm and taking the roof off. Interwoven around are a rollickingly pleasurable Buddy Holly’s ‘Oh Boy’ and a heartfelt, howling freight-train version of ‘That’s Alright (Mama)’; holding Elvis in high affection Slim Jim once confessed of a superstition that he couldn’t turn off a track from the King. “If I’m in my car and at the end of the journey and there’s an Elvis song playing, I’ll sit in the car until the song is over.”
Whilst the roadies cleared the way for the headline act the between sets selection grabs my ear. What can only be described as widely eclectic choice tickles across the board and sets the party mode to eleven. Never before at a gig have I heard the ‘comedy’ of Terry Scott’s ‘My Brother’ roll into ‘Hole In The Ground’ by Bernard Cribbins. Whilst the sight of the ‘Funky Gibbon’ being performed throughout the crowd is going to live long. However, this is all topped by Arthur Mullard’s 1978 duet with Hylda Baker, ‘You’re The One I Want’, leaving us all wondering where on earth these numbers have been dug up from and aching for the main course.
Filing onstage to a pounding intro, as hands clap across the floor with exclamations of ‘Tin Soldier’ around me, Ulster punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers receive a deserved welcome reserved for those of hero status. A repeated chant of “Fingers” rings out from 1000 souls in respectful tribute. With a quick “We’re Stiff Little Fingers” frontman Jake Burns and his compatriots tear into opening track ‘Straw Dogs’ with the fervour normally reserved for a set-closer. Burns barks “If the price is right, dogs of straw” as the Tramshed threatens to boil over not even one track in.
The title track from 1980s ‘Nobody’s Hero’ long-player makes an inceptive brace from the Stiff’s most successful album; fists pump and hands are raised in salutation. The powerhouse forces of drummer Steve Grantley unleash the wrecking-ball. Energies that co-join the fervent delivery of original bassist Ali McMordie who sizzles stage left. On the opposite side of the boards guitarist Ian McCallum, with minimal fuss, dispenses an assured presence.
The highly inflammable opening hat-trick of punk perfection is completed with the juggernaut beat as the Stiffs skank it right up in alliterative manner. We’re hurtled into the frenetic reggae-punk crossover of Bunny Wailers’ ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’
Taking a well-earnt breather Burns pays tribute to the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower tragedy as he introduces the poignant punk of brand-new track ‘The Tower In London Other.’ With its direct to the point lyrics, given their live debut in Bristol just the night before, packing a literal punch – “Sitting on your arses in the House of Lords” – the Stiffs haven’t last one ounce of their impact.
Gnarling a swift “Go” Burns leads the way into ‘Just Fade Away’, trademark SLF to the core with McCallum’s subtle Celtic resonance adding a tasty edge. The anti-establishment of the eyes fully wide-open ‘Full Steam Backwards’ dispels the myth of study hard, get a good job mantra before The Specials’ Terry Hall is memorialised with an emotional ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright.’ A potent ska despatch has the packed Tramshed singing each and every line at full voice. Moving stuff indeed, respect paid.
Burns reveals that the Celtic-fringed ‘Get A Life’ is written in a key that he can’t sing “Hope you can remember, fucking hope I can!” he jokes. Cutting an avuncular figure Burns is the master of control and brings things down a smidgeon with ‘Listen.’ Candidly recounting his personal struggles with depression, introing ‘My Dark Places’, Burns relates “If you’re facing mental anguish or dark places please talk to someone.”
43 years old and still burning brightly ‘Silver Lining’ remains just as relevant today as the very day it was written. “Aren’t you glad it’s so much better today?” quips the affable Burns. The energies are on the rise again as McCallum ‘magically’ trades for an acoustic tone in the riotous ‘Each Dollar A Bullet.’ Insightful lyrical content enwrapped within a Celtic romp that flows through the veins of the likes of Dropkick Murphy and The Levellers continues the notch up through the gears.
Total foot stomper ‘Harp’ rushes headlong into the teenage angst of top 20 single ‘At The Edge.’ Electricity crackles as the atmosphere is ramped up note on note through the machine-gun delivery. It’s anthem after anthem as the rabble-rousing ‘Wasted Life’ jabs sharply. A quick “1-2-3-4” and Burns roars “Go on ya fucker!” The pogoing threatens to blow the scale for ‘Gotta Getaway’ as fists punch, unified, upwards in time to every “S, s, s, s” of the Stiff’s debut single ‘Suspect Device’ which rounds off a devastatingly sensational 70 minutes of pure punk adrenalin.
The crowd bay for more with the Stiffs, sweat soaked, returning for a coupling from the seminal debut ‘Inflammable Material.’ A reworked version of Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ meanders from ska to reggae and back to punk with seamless transition. The volcano that’s been threatening to erupt all set finally spills over with the overtly and instantly opening chord of the explosive ‘Alternative Ulster.’ Written in the frustration of the Belfast youth’s tedium of having nowhere to go AU has firmly stood the tests of time and stands proudly as the ultimate in anthemic punk.
Following a frenzied vehement 90 minutes there’s nothing, in terms of energy, left to give. The Stiffs take a hard-earned bow gratefully accepting the adulation of their loyal ranks. It’s been a bucket list moment on a personal level and I file out into the chill night air enriched. Roll on to next time.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM