Rounding off 3 gigs in 3 nights was the annual “Mad March To Bristol” to see 70’s punk legends and enduring “live” favourites Stiff Little Fingers, the usual old punk duo of myself and The Big Man being joined this year by my little man Logan! The 13th time in 14 years that Rich and I had made this punk rock pilgrimage, and my 18th SLF gig overall, but the first one for Logan, keen to take in another gig. However, experience has already shown me that where my 10 year old son is involved, there’s no such thing as “just another gig…”
An early curfew was on the cards for this one, so we hit the road at 6.30 (after a quick return home to collect Logan’s diabetes testing kit!) and parked up on Trenchard Level 9, dropping down the road to the venue for 7.30. After that quick pop home, Logan had all his diabetes gear in his “Smiggle” bag, advising the stewards at the door of his condition. Immediately on hearing this, the O2 medical host Pat (whom we’d met 2 years ago, gig 978, Rich hunting him down to thank him for looking after his daughter Jess during their trip there to see Bowling For Soup) quickly ushered us through the back bar to the “staff only” area, offering us not only the use of the First Aid room for Logan’s diabetes testing, but also a couple of seats in the disabled viewing area overlooking the dancefloor, stage left, both offers Logan being very grateful to take up. So we set up camp there, Rich supping on his quart of cider just the other side of the rope, as support The Ruts rolled through their set. I was only familiar with their clutch of late 70’s singles, recorded before the untimely death of vocalist Malcolm Owen, but they were another damn fine support, having weathered well and toughly, vocalist “Segs” Jennings commenting, “[we’re] still angry… well, more like grumpy these days!” “Staring At The Rude Boys” sounded great for a nearly 40-year old single, and reggae crossover “Jah Wars” prompted me to give Logan a brief history lesson on those early Don Letts punky reggae days. “In A Rut” got the woman in front of us fist-punching the air, and the inevitable – and brilliantly spooky – “Babylon’s Burning” was dramatic, undulating and very impressive. Whilst “Segs”’ higher-pitched vocals may have lacked the seething, sneering menace of Owen’s own, this was still a splendid opener.
We took a trip back to the First Aid room and sorted Logan’s degladec insulin jab, before taking our seats again, as the lights crashed to black at 8.30. I’d schooled Logan on SLF’s intro music – the greatest in rock, in my view – and he lustily joined in with the roof-raising “diddly-doo” chants from the packed-out floor. “Y’alright – Saturday night in Bristol!” called vocalist Jake Burns, as the band then burst into a totally unexpected opener, a raucous and rasping “Wait And See” from their excellent 1980 “Nobody’s Heroes” album. The rollicking title track from said album followed, then another rarely-played classic in the terrace-chant “Gotta Getaway”, all 3 numbers delivered with no little conviction. Great start! “We’ve decided to shake things up a little bit – you may have noticed from the first 3 songs,” announced Jake impishly, before a story about a video director completely misinterpreting the meaning of “Can’t Believe In You” preceded a purposeful version. In fact, rejigging and refreshing the set certainly seemed to have re-invigorated the boys, as tonight their delivery was consistently determined, dripping with intent and conviction. “We brought this one back last year,” remarked Jake before a sinuous “Safe As Houses”, “and it gets to stay because, fuck it, I like it!”
Despite a few splendidly pitched curveballs, the oldies still got a good airing; “Barbed Wire Love” (“a song we wrote basically ripping the piss out of ourselves from start to finish”) was great, the collapsing riff leading to the doo-wop middle 8 punctuated by Jake warning, “don’t fucking encourage him!” before rakish bassist Ali McMordie added his usual bassy backing vocals, and the final set triad of “At The Edge”, Logan’s favourite and a rather epic “Tin Soldiers”, and a venomous “Suspect Device” were all as powerful, potent and relevant as ever. Before that, however, we had evidence that there was still songwriting life in the old dog yet with a new number, Jake finally reflecting on the precarious current state of the world with scathing ire; “Brexit – that’s going really well, isn’t it? Then America lost its’ collective mind and elected some screaming orange shit-gibbon… I thought, what can I do? So I wrote a song!” Said number, “Tilting At Windmills”, was superb and pointedly accurate, also targeting No. 10’s current incompetent incumbent with, “you’re neither fit nor able to be strong and stable.” Spot on, Jake!
I’d primed Logan about the militaristic drum opening of the sprawling encore, “Johnny Was”, tonight’s reading stretching to nearly 8 minutes. Then, 2 seconds before the 10pm curfew (to Logan’s delight!), the opening note of finale “Alternative Ulster” kicked in, a searing rendition to end a great set, possibly one of the best I’ve seen from Stiff Little Fingers. Getting older, but like fine wine…!
That wasn’t it though – far from it! We thanked Pat and the steward for looking after us so well (same again for Frank Turner? Hope so!), then a friendly roadie sorted a list for Logan; we then ran into comedian and fellow Boston Red Sox fan Phill Jupitus for an entertaining chat about the Sox and The Skids (Phill commenting on Rich’s t-shirt with, “I wish I’d gotten to see them last year” – hey, they’re out this year as well Phill!), then decided to wait outside, our patience being awarded at 11 with pics and signatures from Jake and Ali (guitarist Ian McCallum having passed by and signed Logan’s list a little earlier, not sure where drummer Steve Grantley was!). A foggy drive back slightly later than anticipated, then, but worth it to finally shake Jake Burns’ hand after 18 SLF gigs, and make another indelible memory for Logan’s nascent gigging days!