Sunday, June 2, 2024

Concert Review: Peace, Love and Understanding, the Stiff Little Fingers Way – Ireland’s answer to The Clash

By Rob Curry

As many of us have learned, it takes a lot of work to stay passionate about something. Whether it is your religious or political beliefs, your profession, or your hobby. I have to imagine the same thing applies to bands. So it is remarkable that Jake Burns and Stiff Little Fingers have been singing passionately about justice and overcoming intolerance for over 45 years. After seeing them at NYC’s Webster Hall for the seventh time over forty years, I have to say they are still bringing that same passion to their music and issues today as they did back in the early days of the band.

Stiff Little Fingers (SLF) burst on the scene in 1979 with “Alternative Ulster” which appeared on the classic Rough Trade compilation “Wanna Buy a Bridge”. Hailing from Northern Ireland they experienced firsthand the “troubles” that both Catholics and Protestants had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. They didn’t make much of it, but SLF was made up of both Catholics and Protestants members. So, while many of their songs like “Alternative Ulster” are political they also remarkably are able to not take sides but push for solutions that can satisfy both groups.

Being a group that was bi-religious it is also appropriate that they cover The Special’s (who were a biracial ska band from the Two Tone era) song “That Doesn’t Make it Alright” which is about black and white youths getting along. SLF obviously viewed the song as very relevant to the conflict between Catholic and Protestant youths in Northern Ireland.

The tour is titled “Hate Has No Home Here” which is an unreleased song (Jake – what are you waiting for? We aren’t getting any younger!”). Jake explained he was inspired to write that song while living in Chicago in a neighborhood that was experiencing some racial tensions.

But SLF doesn’t only deal with big political issues but also deeply personal ones. Jake gave the longest song intro of the night to “My Dark Places” about people struggling with depression. He encouraged anyone struggling with mental health issues to reach out to a friend to talk and for those on the receiving end of the that outreach to be open to listening.

SLF are often referred to as the Irish Clash and Jake acknowledges the Clash’s influence in a song they wrote when Joe Strummer died called “Strummerville.

Goodbye inspiration 

Voice of a generation 

Goodbye Inspiration 

I won't be playing Strummerville again

And appropriately the song ends with a few choruses of the Clash’s “Clash City Rocker”

The mosh pit really got going during the two song encore. The crowd was mostly in their 50s and 60s so it was a very welcoming pit with the participants making sure to stow the reading glasses and secure the hearing aids before venturing in.

“Barbed Wire Love” was the first song of the encore. The song is about falling in love with a girl from the other side.

I met you in No Man's Land 

Across the wire we were holding hands 

Hearts a-bubble in the rubble 

It was love at bomb site

After visiting Belfast in 2023 I now have a much better appreciation for that song. While things have improved in Northen Ireland after the 1998 peace agreement, there are still separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods separated by walls with barbed wire on top. Our tour guide told us that back in the 1970s and 1980s if a Catholic and Protestant got married, they were not allowed to live in either neighborhood and had to move out of Northern Ireland.

Stiff Little Fingers at NYC's Webster Hall                    Photo by Rob Curry

They ended the show where they begin in 1979 with “Alternative Ulster”. It was bittersweet as the tour was billed as their final US tour. But Jake gave the audience some hope saying they would still play the occasional festival and would be sure to include a stop in NYC.

Hanx! to SLF for the past (and hopefully) future memories.