With their performance at the Vogue this past Saturday, punk band Stiff Little Fingers proves two things. First, that they remain a legitimate force in the musical word. That first point warms my heart, brothers and sisters, because while the market bulges with aging rockers who phone in their shows, Stiff Little Fingers retains its passion. A rare treat indeed. Second, it shows that there is still room in popular music for politics. Granted, punk isn’t exactly trendy, but it’s popular enough. Popular enough, that is, that performers can face danger from the groups they offend. Don’t believe me? Try singing an anti-racist song with a bunch of skinheads within hearing distance.
Now, I promise not to harangue you, brothers and sisters, with a lot of political talk. After all, this is about the music. But punk and politics, particularly radical politics, often intertwine. Very closely, almost to the point of inseparability, in fact. On top of that, a lot of SLF’s material draws from their personal experiences growing up in Troubles-era Belfast where people routinely killed each other for political reasons. Just keep that in mind.
Now that those disclaimers are all out of the way, let’s talk about the show.
Norwegian band Death by Unga Bunga got the honor of warming up the audience. I’ll give them this: they had a rather unique instrumental scheme going for Saturday’s show. I’ve never seen four guitars and a drum kit before. Genre-wise they have a sort of garage rock sound which integrates just a hint of pop punk. Honestly, I wasn’t too enamored of them. They played with plenty of energy, but their sound lacked cohesion. The guitars just played over each other, no interlocking solos or even a sound you could tease apart. Even so, DBUB has a fun stage presence, and I enjoyed the banter they kept up with the audience. It just goes to show, even if you have technical shortcomings, enthusiasm can shore them up.
I’ll just come out and say this, the Vogue probably isn’t the best venue for punk rock.
Not even pop punk. Don’t get me wrong, the Vogue is a wonderful venue. Indeed, probably one of the best venues in Indianapolis. But every genre has an atmosphere that it works best in, punk included. The Vogue does not have that atmosphere. Still, the show didn’t suffer too much for it. But I digress.
There’s always something thrilling about watching an old master take the stage. After all, since they have all the technical points nailed down by now, they can focus on the art, and Stiff Little Fingers did just that.
SLF’s performance had surprisingly conversational tone. Both figuratively and literally. To wit, frontman Jake Burns addressed the audience in between songs. Most often delivering short lectures on the origins of the song he was about to play for us. I personally enjoyed his monologues. They showed a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and gave me context which enhanced the effect of the songs. Likewise, Stiff Little Finger’s playing style was not as aggressive as it had been in the past, making for a more relaxed show. Even so, I noticed a few folks in the audience by the stage trying to form a mosh pit. It didn’t really go anywhere, but at least they tried.
There were two musical highlights this past Saturday. Remember what I said about music and politics in the opening paragraph? This is the part where I give specifics. About midway through SLF’s show, the rhythm guitarist left the stage and returned with an acoustic guitar. Now, acoustic instruments in punk music are hardly unheard of, but they remain rare enough to warrant a remark. At that point, Jake Burns reminded us all of the molestation scandal which rocked the Catholic Church back in the early 2000s. The song he and Stiff Little Fingers played, called “Guilty as Sin,” took Irish folk motifs and combined them with punk conventions. For example, the weeping melody of an Irish folk tune mixed with the speed and power of a punk song. The lyrical content criticized not only the priests guilty of the crimes themselves, but the Church’s concealment of them.
While not necessarily a bold move in the US, in Ireland, even Northern Ireland, the Church still has considerable clout. Even more so at the time when Jake Burns wrote the song. I won’t call their singing about the scandal heroic, but it did take gumption. Also, the song was catchy as hell, and I can’t get the song-title chorus out of my head even now.
When Stiff Little Fingers played their closing song, I heard the second highlight of the evening. As they prepared to leave the stage, Stiff Little Fingers broke into their classic, “Alternative Ulster.” The crowd cheered. “Alternative Ulster” is something of a signature for Stiff Little Fingers, ever since their early days. It’s a catchy little tune, combining strong rock hooks with all of that gritty punk goodness. A perfect way to close out a great night.
Keep listening, everybody.