So is this going to be an annual event now? Because I’d be completely fine with that. Stiff Little Fingers return to Custom House Square, “Putting the Fast in Belfast” for a second time. Just like last year they brought with them a set packed with hits, a wonderful line up of support acts and of course, with it being Belfast, a little rain.
The night got started similarly with Terri Hooley keeping those who got here early entertained with a stellar DJ set rammed with classics from The Ramones, The Clash, MC5 & The Beastie Boys to name but a few.
Things stay close to home for a little longer; as Belfast’s Godfather of punk leaves, The Defects take his place. Without so much as a word they begin to throw t-shirts into the crowd of familiar faces before opening with “Hill Street” which you could probably hear in Hill Street just a few minutes away. The Defects are very much a Belfast band. The city is interwoven into so many of their songs. Ian Murdock recalls writing “Dance (Until You Drop)” about sniffing glue in the subway which many of tonight’s crowd likely used in getting to Custom House Square. He jokes that if anyone here claims a common memory they weren’t really there.
Next on this outstanding bill are The Buzzcocks. In what is a relatively short set time, the band manage to cover a lot of ground. The Buzzcocks are known for their infectiously catchy pop-punk hooks and when experienced live in a tersely packed set, it is easy to see why the band have endured. Opening with 1977’s “Boredom” they get the crowd bouncing. “What Do I Get?”, “Orgasm Addict”, “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” and “Harmony In My Head” are knocked out one after another.
As The Damned take to the stage, the threatening rain finally begins. They open their set with “Love Song” followed by “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” which they dedicate to Terri Hooley. The crowd dances despite the rain to 2018’s “Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” and the poppy “Eloise”. They are praised for their “great taste” as Captain Sensible tells them how they have outsold John Lydon’s Public Image Limited in Bangor tonight by five to one; “take that “king of punk!”. He dedicates “Ignition” to Brian James, one of the founding members of the band who he declares was really the “guy who started it all.” “New Rose” sees everyone, including the band worked up into a complete frenzy as Monty Oxymoron leaves the confines of his keyboard to dance stage front. The Damned cut their set short and opt to play only Part Two of the punk classic that is “Smash It Up” leaving things perfectly set up for the headliners.
Stiff Little Fingers open their set with “Wait and See” which seems like a fitting place to start as Jake Burns sings, “When we started we thought we were great. Though nobody else agreed”. The band were right to tell doubters to wait and tonight is just one of countless moments throughout their career that have been worth waiting for.
While tonight’s show may not have been the complete sell out of last year, it is hard to think that if it weren’t for some really quite poor scheduling of two massive punk shows on the same night, it easily would have been.
Burns tells the crowd he will try his best to keep his “yacking to a low” to get as many songs squeezed in as possible, hitting as many points in their career as they can. This is a promise which is upheld amazingly as the band even play a brand new, yet to be recorded song called “Tilting at Windmills”. Stiff Little Fingers have never shied away from politics in their songs and this new track sees them try to make sense of it in the modern day as Burns sings how he is “hoping justice has its way.”
From Politics to love. As the doo-wop melody of “Barbed Wire Love” fills Custom House Square the crowd sways as one collective mass. A seamless shift to the reggae inspired “Safe As Houses” proves the band’s versatility. Next up is two-tone classic and The Specials cover “Doesn’t Make It Alright”. Not only have the band spanned the timeline of their career but they have crossed so many musical genres effortlessly.
Particularly poignant is their performance of “My Dark Places” from their latest studio album, 2014’s No Going Back. Burns openly discusses his experiences with depression and explains how the song was originally meant as a personal self-help guide. He urges Belfast to forget the stigma surrounding mental health and open up a discussion as he is tonight.
“At The Edge”, “Tin Solider” and “Suspect Device” are sung back at the band with vigor. After a remarkably short break the band are back on stage for an encore. They finish the set with “Alternative Ulster”. Fists in the air and voices raised; this is Belfast’s song as much as it is the band’s. Stiff Little Fingers thank Belfast for “giving [them] a start” and a career that has spanned over forty years.
Same time again next year then?