“So, where were we?” its an enquiry from TV Smith with rather more resonance than usual, I guess. Rewind to the 14th March 2020, and right here, these three bands played a gig that turned out to be the last I saw for 18 tortuous months, and if a lot has changed since then at least TV got a record out of it. “Lockdown Holiday” came from the fact he got Covid himself just after the gig, and songs like “Lucky Ones” reflect his happiness to still be here making the music he is. And even here, armed with an acoustic that seems to have come straight from the Woody Guthrie school of “This Machine Kills Fascists”, this is a punk rock snarl. Another from the new album “Bounce Back” seems to take its cues from “Immortal Rich”, a withering take down of “our betters”. There’s a couple of Adverts tracks too, and time and a lack of bluster has not diminished the power of either “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” or “One Chord Wonders”. As Tom Spencer of the Professionals notes later in the evening, it takes bravery to get up on stage on your own. He’s not wrong, and it serves as a reminder that punk rock is merely an attitude.
“We’re not bad for a warm up act, are we?” If I’ve put a question mark after those words, I am not sure its grammatically correct. For Tom Spencer, it’s a statement of fact, and in honesty, The Professionals look a lot more suited to these bigger stages than they did the small show I saw them at last year. Well they might too, given that Paul Cook and the boys have a collection of mighty songs, and a line up who knows about the big leagues too. “Easily Led”, “Any Other Dream” and their new album “Snafu”’s arguable standout moment of “Spike Me Baby” are exactly the type of low-slung rock n roll that you’d want. This line up of the band including Chris Catalyst (and one day I’ll see a band without him in…..!) and Toshi (he gets Wildhearts bonus points) is superb at playing the old stuff too, and “Payola” and “Oh You Pretty Thing” still pack a punch – in that they sound like they are ready to smash your face in) and as they play “Monkey’s” (a song that even technical issues couldn’t spoil), “123” and “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” – the cover that Cook used to play in that other band he was in once upon a time – those words come back to you. Not bad for a warm up act.
I’ve begun the other two reviews here with a quote, and make no apologies for doing so again. Because when Jake Burns steps up to the mic and says this: “I wrote this one because I got annoyed at all these artists who don’t use their platform. All they want to do is write about getting drunk and shagging. For Christ’s sake lads, write about something that matters, will you?” He is – to me – talking about the essence of Stiff Little Fingers.
Right after this, they play “Last Protest Song” – a brand new track – and in doing so, they show why they still have the fire, but also why they are the best there is.
You know what you’re going to get from SLF at this point. Every year they deliver, time after time. Here is no different, “Suspect Device” from the height of the troubles back in the late 70s kicks us off, and from there, as ever, it amounts to a victory lap, and its one which, whether you were there at the start, or got into the band because Ricky Warwick of Black Star Riders kept saying they were his favourite band (I’ll let you guess which one applies to me) includes everyone.
They know exactly what they are doing and exactly how to construct a set too, and its striking that there’s no lulls, so that even “Hope Street,” or “Fly The Flag” and the one cover, Buddy Wailer’s “Roots, Radics, Rockers Reggae” are greeting with the same zeal as the rest.
There’s an irony, of course, in the reflection of “Bits Of Kids” and the later “When We Were Young” (“I’ve just celebrated my 64th birthday” laughs Burns, wryly) but this is a band with so much to say. After dedicating “Safe As Houses” to women, they play “My Dark Places”, a song that has meant so much to so many over the years (and helped me personally more than Burns might know), and there’s the usual “Strummerville”, fists raised in unison as “Clash City Rockers” at the end, while “Barbed Wire Love” (played for the people of Ukraine here) has clearly been a part of many lives.
The end of the gig continues that celebration too. “Gotta Getaway” gets us to the encore, and when they emerge (Burns now in a Ukraine football shirt) it’s for “Toy Soldiers” and the still sensational “Alternative Ulster”, and as ever, seeing SLF feels like one of the most life affirming things you can possibly do.
Not being born until 1975 rather precludes me from the debate as to who the “best” punk rock band were. Instead, let me say this: I know who my favourite is and they headlined the show tonight.