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Review: Stiff Little Fingers + Ruts DC, O2 Academy, Newcastle

Stiff Little Fingers' Jake Burns, left, and Ali McMordie at the O2 Academy in Newcastle. All pictures: Gary Welford.
Stiff Little Fingers' Jake Burns, left, and Ali McMordie at the O2 Academy in Newcastle. All pictures: Gary Welford.

For a band formed 41 years ago, in the punk zenith year of 1977, Stiff Little Fingers  have retained remarkable pulling power.

Born at the height of The Troubles in Belfast, they are showing no signs of slowing up, even though frontman Jake Burns recently turned 60, and the rest of the band aren't too far behind him.

John 'Segs' Jennings of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

John 'Segs' Jennings of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

This Friday night show in the city which Burns called home for many years was again sold out, no doubt helped by the fact they had very special guests in the shape of Ruts DC.

A cut above your ordinary support act, the West Londoners’ 45-minute set took us back to the days when, as The Ruts, they were shaping up to be the heirs to The Clash’s throne as the people’s punk band, only to have their momentum halted by the tragic death from a heroin overdose of singer Malcolm Owen.

They soldiered on for a few years as Ruts DC, only to spilt in 1983. They reconvened a few years ago, sadly minus another original member, guitarist Paul Fox, who lost his battle with cancer.

His place nowadays is amply filled by Leigh Heggarty, part of a formidable trio alongside original drummer Dave Ruffy and bassist ‘Segs’ Jennings, who takes on vocal duties.

Dave Ruffy of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Dave Ruffy of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Dues are, naturally, paid to the old songs, like Babylon’s Burning, Staring At The Rude Boys, Jah War and In A Rut, which are greeted like the classics they are.

But they are interspersed among tracks from the excellent 2016 album Music Must Destroy, with Surprise, Kill The Pain and Psychic Attack more than holding their own, and firmly established as fan favourites.

The highlight of their set was probably Mighty Soldier, a slice of punky reggae recorded five years ago which could have been made back in their heyday before tragedy struck.

With the audience warmed up nicely it was time for the main event, and as usual, Stiff Little Fingers didn’t disappoint.

Leigh Heggarty of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Leigh Heggarty of Ruts DC at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

They’ve released 10 studio albums over the course of their career, most recently 2014’s No Going Back, but they’re best experienced live.

I’ve seen them so many times I’ve lost count, and the only criticism I’d ever level is that sometimes – particularly with an 11-year gap between their last two albums – their sets can sometimes be a bit samey.

That can’t be said on this Down To The Bone tour, as they rang the changes right from the start. Wait And See was a track from the Nobody’s Heroes album, way back in 1980, and it must be 15 years since they played it live.

Here they started with it, and it sounded just as good as it did all those years ago. “You’re not good enough to be a dance band … we’ll show them” indeed.

Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Nobody’s Hero and Gotta Getaway followed, making for a blistering opening, and then they threw in another of the night’s curveballs, Can’t Believe In You, from 1994’s Get A Life album.

Most of the songs you’d expect at an SLF live show were present and correct: Barbed Wire Love, Wasted Life, At The Edge, and My Dark Places, Burns’s uplifting anthem from the last album about his fight against depression which has become a set staple.

But there were other surprises too: the return of (I Could Be) Happy yesterday from 1997’s Tinderbox album, and a new song, Tilting At Windmills, inspired by Brexit and the fact America, as Burns put it, “collectively lost its mind” by electing Donald Trump as president.

The highlights for me came mid-set when Is That What We Fought The War For? Was followed by “a song we stole from The Specials”, Doesn’t Make It Alright.

The closing double whammy of Tin Soldiers and Suspect Device was flowed by perennial encore pairing Johnny Was and Alternative Ulster, and then they were gone, leaving the crowd – which seems to get younger, as well as older, if that makes sense – exhausted, hoarse and very happy.

Until the next time boys - see you next year.

Stiff Little Fingers bass player Ali McMordie at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers bass player Ali McMordie at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers guitarist Ian McCallum at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers guitarist Ian McCallum at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers drummer Steve Grantley at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers drummer Steve Grantley at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Ian McCallum, left, and Ali McMordie of Stiff Little Fingers at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Ian McCallum, left, and Ali McMordie of Stiff Little Fingers at the O2 Academy in Newcastle.

Stiff Little Fingers at the O2 Academy in Newcastle. All pictures: Gary Welford.

Stiff Little Fingers at the O2 Academy in Newcastle. All pictures: Gary Welford.