Sunday, 29 September 2013

889 XSLF, Charred Hearts, Swindon Basement 73, Saturday 28 September 2013

Squeezed in an unexpected gig tonight as it was local, and a variation on my usual “Mad March to Bristol !” I normally pop down the M4 each March to catch original punk combo Stiff Little Fingers on their annual Academy tour, however former original guitarist Henry Cluney, widely credited as the man who introduced punk rock to an Ulster covers band called Highway Star, thus prompting their metamorphosis into SLF, has formed a breakaway version of the band trading under the XSLF banner and also featuring early line-up drummer Jim Reilly. And they’re playing a gig in my old 80’s/90’s weekend haunt Level 3, sorry Basement 73 as it’s now billed. This should be an interesting one, to contrast this lot with “the real thing” with whom I’m so familiar thanks to their annual go-around, and also to see how SLF numbers stack up without the gravelly rasp of vocalist Jake Burns. Here goes…

Drove into town after the kids went to bed, meeting up with The Big Man and Ady outside the Rolleston and catching up awhile. Chatted upstairs through the opening act downstairs, but t’was then getting a little chilly so I went down to this familiar old venue (although oddly enough for the first time under its’ new incarnation!) to catch main support, 80’s reformed punk act Charred Hearts. Local boys, this lot, with vocalist Dermot Fuller also having had a hand in organising this gig, a memorial event for a friend, they understandably played with bucketfuls of passion and commitment, sweeping their ramalama terrace chant street punk along with undiluted intensity and conviction. Fuller was fulsome in his praise for the impressive turnout of old punk rockers (“I’m so proud of all you fuckers”), also remarking, tongue in cheek, after one energetic number, “the adrenaline’s starting to kick in – I tell you, when you’re pushing 40 like us lot…!” I also appreciated him wandering offstage during a middle eight, simply to walk through the venue and shake hands with a few punters and friends. Style, sir. Noisy and ramshackle, but sincere and impressive stuff from a band who clearly wear their (charred) hearts on their sleeves.

By now Ady and The Big Man had joined us at the bar, where we awaited XSLF’s entrance at 10.30. Dermot Fuller announced the 3-piece onstage, with Cluney, a short black-clad bloke who’d clearly been sharing the same diet as his similarly expanding former bandmate Burns, kicking off with “At The Edge”. However, whereas SLF’s rendition is normally exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, this seemed slow, sluggish and haphazardly played, with Cluney, a quieter, more understated, nuanced and heavily Irish accented vocalist, suffering in comparison to Burns’ considerably more strident tones. A couple of less familiar early numbers later, I was formulating the view that this was not a patch on the real thing, a disappointing, almost pub-circuit standard imitation. Then…

“Tin Soldiers” changed all that. “If they get this one wrong, we might as well all go home…” I remarked to The Big Man. Thankfully, they didn’t, kicking up the conviction level a few hundred notches with an impressive rendition of SLF’s best number. “Gotta Getaway” followed, one rarely trotted out by Burns’ mob, so I got up for a pogo and an arms aloft, fists punching the air punk rock singalong. The usual SLF faves shone after that, with Cluney ultimately playing with a sense of ownership and entitlement; an anthemic “Fly The Flag”, a shambolic “Alternative Ulster” which nevertheless got the dancefloor filled with a rampaging mosh, a swayalong “Barbed Wire Love”, and final encore “Roots Radicals, Rockers and Reggae”, to end on a real high.

Sure, there were bum notes and ragged edges aplenty, particularly from the short-notice replacement bassman, and musically they didn’t compare favourably to the “real” SLF. But after a dreadful start, this was better than I’d initially feared, with Cluney another old punk growing old disgracefully, revisiting his roots and rediscovering his mojo in the process. And they were playing in a small sweaty club in Swindon on a Saturday night, for a good cause. So fair play to ‘em. A damn fine evening’s punk rock!

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