The final part of my End of March Gig Rush is the traditional “Mad March To Bristol” for punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers, only with a slight difference this year; usual fellow Mad Marcher The Big Man cried off at short notice with the flu, so for this, my 8th such gig in 9 years, I’m joined instead by Debbie, Swindon’s Queen of Punk! To be fair, though, she was joining Rich and myself this year anyway, after commenting on Facebook that she’d not seen SLF before. This one was also significant due to the support; 80’s folk/ punk reprobates and recent 12 Bar “live” favourites The Men They Couldn’t Hang! Honestly, I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate SLF support than fellow Clash devotees The Men, so this promised to be a great, all-inclusive double bill.
So I picked Deb up at 6.30 for an entertaining drive down, parking up at 7.20 then losing her as soon as we walked through the door of the venue to some Bristol friends! So I popped down onto the deserted floor on my own for former Sex Pistols hanger-on turned “Crystal Maze” presenter Ed Tudorpole. “I know it’s early, they’ve got me here to warm you cunts up!” he announced during a set of thrashy acoustic tomfoolery, delivered in his distinctive yodelling vocal style. One disastrous singalong attempt for new number “I’m Not A Punk? Fuck Off You Cunt!” saw him berate Bristol, but then concede “you’re not as bad as Hull!” The wild-eyed Tudorpole then finally won the early crowd over with the pantomime punk of “Friggin' In The Riggin’” and “Who Killed Bambi?” (“I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking of that song!”) before the inevitable “Swords Of A Thousand Men” actually prompted a singalong as reward for his efforts.
Wandered down the front, bumping into old friend Steve Aldridge and his wife, for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, who sauntered on casually shortly afterwards. “You can see we haven’t got any set-lists, so shout out what you want to hear,” Swill announced, then in response to mine and Olly’s calls, burst into opener “Ghosts Of Cable Street”. There followed an hugely entertaining, sing-along, sway-along and all inclusive set of their rabble rousing folky punk collision, with their lyrical content as ever depicting class struggles through the ages, fighting for the spirit of the common man. “Rosettes” was an unexpected terrace chant highlight, before the true jewel of their performance, a stark, bitter rendition of “Green Fields Of France”, a glorious, elegiac requiem to war dead, at the conclusion of which I turned to Olly and said, “we might as well go home now, we’re not going to hear anything better than that tonight!” A rambunctious “Going Back To Coventry” followed, then the hearty singalong of “Smugglers” saw me videoing a clip for Logan, who loves that song. “Ironmasters”, fast and frenetic and always one of my favourite numbers to dance to, ended a set which, while thin on sound (the PA set up for SLF’s guitar anthems rather than TMTCH’s mandolins) was never short on passion, and was reciprocated by the crowd. Great stuff – and yes, they did have a set-list, which co-vocalist Stefan Cush handed to me at the end!
Top that, SLF! The boys kept us waiting awhile but eventually took the stage at the conclusion of their “Go For It!” entrance music, the best in rock’n’roll, period. This tour was entitled “Up A Gear”, and initially totally lived up to its’ billing; the opening salvo of “At The Edge”, “Wasted Life” and “Roots” was delivered in a hurry, not a pause for breath, thrilling and tremendous prime slices of vintage punk rock each, with the beefy Jake Burns and rock-star skinny Ali McMordie (who bore an excellent t-shirt saying, “McMordie – putting the Fast in Belfast”) to the fore. Surely they couldn’t keep this pace up!
Inevitably, they couldn’t. A clutch of new and less familiar numbers slowed the frantic pace somewhat, although newie “Trail Of Tears”, a comparison of immigration laws in the US with Nazi Germany, featured some Thin Lizzy-like snaking riffery. “Strummerville” threatened to bring the tempo back, but it was actually “Doesn’t Make It Alright” which really lifted the performance into life again, Jake relaying a story of how he was invited to hang out with the Specials just before coming over (“but we’ll bring the Specials to you!”). This was an all-inclusive singalong from the frenzied mosh, the reggae beat suddenly bursting into life for the amphetamine fast punk rock ending.
Then they were back “on it”. “Fly The Flag” was as venomous as ever, a rabid “Straw Dogs” an unexpected treat, before a ragged, jagged “Suspect Device” ended the set strongly. Back for the encore, Jake announced they were going to do a number by a band they admired, which turned out to be an excellent, faithful rendition of The Ruts classic “Staring At The Rude Boys”. A manic “Tin Soldiers” rounded off the encore, before they were brought back on for fulsome compliments from Jake for Bristol (“you’ve been a brilliant audience – as ever”, which kind of explains why they – and we –keep coming back) and an inevitable, superb “Alternative Ulster”, to end a set which started like a firecracker, sagged a little in the middle for me, but then roared back at the end with a vengeance.
A quick chat with TMTCH vocalist Swill at the merch stand before we hit the road, Deb converted and wanting to come back next year; SLF will be back, no doubt; so will I, and hopefully so will The Big Man!