The sound of Stiff Little Fingers, forged in Northern Ireland at the height of that country’s Troubles, is an unmistakable rebuke to authority, and if some of the specific authorities mentioned in “Alternative Ulster” have changed face and name over the last forty years, the answer from the collective “us” remains the same. “Is this the kind of place you wanna live/ is this where you wanna be?” is a question a lot of people are dealing with right here, right now, and it was sung back at the band with joyous abandon by a lot of people in the El Rey who may not actually know where Ulster is or what it means. Some people have told me they used to sing along to that line as “I turned into a lobster!” or “I married a monster!” Americans. But eventually, they figured it out and maybe learned a little something along the way. And in the meantime, it’s easy to sing along with a sentiment like “They say they got control of you/ and that’s a lie ya know!” and understand who “they” implicitly are. “They” are the ones who say you will never be free, and we will always have those people with us to deal with and sing songs about.
And because these messages do remain timeless, it’s a treat to have Jake Burns still around in top condition to sing and play them. That guitar of his sounded incredible inside the El Rey, that same chainsaw-slash-vacuum cleaner sound from Inflammable Material, played with fingernail-shredding strength. He’s singing as well as ever, maybe a result of having written his best known songs in a football-chant midrange that even codgers can shout along with comfortably.
The band sound powerful and sharp, with original bassist Ali McMordrie replicating those distinctive raging yet reggae-informed basslines. Drummer Steve Grantley and guitarist Ian MacCallum – the “new kids” who joined in the mid-1990s – are strong contributors in their own right, giving the band’s later catalog songs a sophisticated touch beyond the original band’s reach.
While highlights of the set list came from throughout the band’s career, including their most recent studio effort No Going Back, the strongest audience response predictably came for the songs from the first three albums, of which there were many. “Breakout”, “Wasted Life”, and “Barbed Wire Love” peppered the first hour of the set, before a closing run straight through “Nobody’s Hero”, “Tin Soldiers”, “Suspect Device”, “Johnny (Was A Good Man”), “Gotta Getaway” and “Alternative Ulster” that absolutely flattened the dance floor of the El Rey. We raise a glass to an enduring institution of rock and roll resistance.
Written by Bob Lee. All photos by Elise Thompson for the LA Beat.