How can you fail when you have ‘Suspect Device’ in your arsenal? How can you fail when you have ‘Alternative Ulster’, when you have ‘Wasted Life’, when you have ‘At The Edge’? The answer is you can’t. Stiff Little Fingers could walk these songs through a gig in their sleep and still leave a blitzed dancefloor in their wake. Walking through a set just isn’t in SLF’s nature, though. The annual visit to The Academy is a staple in the Dublin punk fan’s diet, and on the cold November evening it’s the same perennially invigorated quartet that greets the usual rowdiness out in front.
Over thirty-five years since Inflammable Material came searing out of Belfast, the band remain steadfast in their convictions; a more mature outlook, maybe, but still fired-up and angry. “Journalists asked me ‘how did you predict the Syrian crisis?’” Jake Burns says sardonically at the preamble to ‘Trail Of Tears’, a song about changes in immigration control in certain states of America, and one of a handful of tracks played from their 2014 crowd-funded No Going Back record. It appears to be an inadvertently pertinent remark. At this point few, if any, inside The Academy had any idea of the terrorist attack that was unfolding concurrently at the Eagles of Death Metal’s gig at Paris’ Le Bataclan.
No Going Back’s title still speaks to a band that don’t just want to knock out a greatest hits karaoke set for the rest of their career, but the progressive stance doesn’t mean they aren’t deferential to the characters that played roles in their formative years. In the audience tonight is Colin McClelland, the man that discovered and fostered their fledgling creativity along with Gordon Ogilvie, and ‘When We Were Young’ – co-penned by Phil Lynott – is sent his way with a weight of gratitude. Joe Strummer is another figure who looms large in the Stiffs’ history, and the ‘Clash City Rockers’ coda of ‘Strummerville’ – that heartfelt tribute to the Clash frontman – slows into ‘Guilty As Sin’. The tempo takes a turn into ballad country, Ian McCallum slips on an acoustic while Burns pre-empts a mishap that never materialises (“This is a new guitar, I don’t quite trust it just yet”).
The band has the knack of flooring it, then paring back when things get a bit too rowdy. The set opener of ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ has the crowd in full voice from word one, segueing into a tribal tom rumble from Steve Grantley that suddenly lurches into the overdrive of ‘At The Edge’. The night’s first crowdsurfer emerges from the beer-sodden morass, and in fairness, tonight’s bouncers are more of the ‘stern eyeball’ variety than the ‘get-out-to-fuck’ kind – it’s all good, clean, chaperoned rebellion.
“This is one of the few times we’ve let McMordie near the mic” Burns says before ‘Barbed Wire Love’, “but worth it for the comedy value.” The bassist duly provides the deep “dum-dum-dum-dum” doo-wop backing vocals with a grin as the song kicks off another of those neatly-packaged rabble rousers – ‘Wasted Life’, ‘Tin Soldiers’ and that unbeatable first single, ‘Suspect Device’.
The now customary encore lead-in of ‘Johnny Was’ sees Grantley and Burns duke it out, slashed guitar chords piercing the beat before the other two rejoin. After a lengthy mid-section Burns commandeers McCallum’s mic when his own packs in, but proper order is restored in time for the singer to bark a second “Thank you, goodnight!” Come on, Jake; why even bother at this stage? We all know what happens next.
The indefatigable Ali McMordie leads the charge, bouncing in from the wings as if it’s the first song of the night, and that opening chord of ‘Alterative Ulster’ comes in loud. Burns cracks a smile at the mayhem in front of him, with a look that seems to say “rather you than me, lads” He’s been seeing this reaction for over thirty-five years now. Stiff Little Fingers have been coming to Dublin since 1978. They’ll be back in 2016. The Academy will be full, and ‘Alternative Ulster’ will still be the song that conquers all.
How can they fail?