Yup, it’s that time of year again… and this one’s all about the stats. Tonight’s “Mad March To Bristol” is the 10th time in 11 years I’ve seen enduring original punks Stiff Little Fingers “live” at Bristol Academy in March. This also now being the 15th time I’ve seen them overall, SLF now proudly stand on their own in 2nd place in my “bands most seen” list, behind the inevitable Seafood (who at their current rate they’ll catch up in March 2022!). I confess that SLF aren’t actually up there with my absolute favourite bands (in fact, they’re probably not even in the top echelon of my favourite original punk bands, behind the likes of The Skids and The Ramones) and their impressive gig rate is due to this annual opportunity more so than anything; however every time is a damn good time, usually a chance for an evening out with old friend/s and a singalong to some raucous terrace chant punk. Plus, SLF still have the best entrance music of any band ever, so what’s not to like?
So, I picked Rich up at 6.45 (stat reference again; this being the 8th time we’d done this Mad March” together, and with Rich having already driven 4 times, I needed to pilot the usual Lauda-esque drive down tonight to catch up!), and we hit the venue just before 8. Spent some time checking out the merch and chatting in the back bar, so missed openers Ghost Of The Avalanche, but decided to check out main support Electric River. We were glad we did – halfway through their first number, we’d both already turned round to each other and said, “I like this!” A 3-piece from Kent, they nevertheless played some decidedly American sounding blue-collar honest-to-goodness rawk and roll, big, beefed up and hookily anthemic, like a Gaslight Anthem if they were brought up on a diet of, say, The Clash or even tonight’s headliners, instead of Springsteen. The strong-armed, flat cap-clad vocalist (headwear similar to GA’s Brian Fallon!) was evidently hard as nails, opening his beer bottle up with his teeth, clearly enjoying himself up there and praising the crowd response; “we like the vibe [in Bristol], we like the water, we like the graffiti, we like the crowd!” “Leap Of Faith” (“about someone who’s been knocked down one time too often”) was a heart-on-sleeve working class manifesto, and segued perfectly into a singalong of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. More sing-alongs during their final couple of numbers too, “Keep The Engine Burning”, dedicated to their van (!) being a penultimate fist-pumping punkish blast and the highlight of an impressive set. Nice blokes too, as we found out, chatting to the vocalist – apparently called Sponge! – about The Ramones and touring strategies at their merch stand after their set.
We cut the chat short to head back in at 9.15 for the anticipated arrival of SLF, but they kept us waiting until 9.30 for their entrance, after the aforementioned brilliant “Go For It” entrance music, and to the usual raucous Bristol reception. Again, they fairly tore into their set from the off, blasting through a venomous, empowering “Nobody’s Hero”, the hookline of “be what you are!”being delivered with gusto from imposing, gravel-throated vocalist Jake Burns, then incredibly, they turned up the wick even further for “At The Edge” and “Roots Radicals Rockers and Reggae”. A stunning opening triple salvo!
“Saturday night in Bristol!” was again Burns’ rallying cry, before a set well balanced between first-time-round old favourites, and a clutch of newies gathered together on last year’s “No Going Back” CD, most of those eliciting lengthy introductions from Burns. Thus we had some pointed advice on dealing with depression (“talk to your friends [about it] – there’s no stigma”) before “My Dark Places”, a sideswipe at the Catholic church before an almost-folky “Guilty As Sin”, and a story about a night out with Phil Lynott (“we got drunk like only two blokes from Ireland can”) prior to the lament for lost youth and friends, “When We Were Young”. The older numbers (a snarling “Straw Dogs” and bilious “Fly The Flag” being a late-set double highlight) were largely dispensed with without introductions, Jake – unexpectedly in this, an election year - keeping his commentaries personal rather than political, letting these strident versions speak for themselves.
All too soon we’d raced through the set, Burns complimenting the “astonishing” crowd (who’d gone nuts from note one, a frenzied moshpit lasting throughout the set) with, “we’ve been coming here to play for 36 years and you’ve never let us down yet”, rounding the set off with a superb “Suspect Device”. The night was then capped off with 2 encores; firstly “a hippy song”, a well-executed cover of Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding”, and a powerful, incendiary “Wasted life”, before the inevitable final “Alternative Ulster” ended 1 ½ hours of vintage punk rock, delivered by a band who clearly aren’t allowing age to extinguish their fire.
So, a couple of fine performances tonight; a highly promising new lot in Electric River, and a fiery, vintage showing from Stiff Little Fingers, proving utterly worthy of their Number 2 “most seen” spot for me. Back again, same time next year? Count on it!