Stiff Little Fingers/The Avengers
The Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL (10/16/19)
When I first heard about this pairing, I probably needed, what, all of five seconds to decide: "Yeah! Gotta go, gotta catch this one!" What feels more inspired, you may ask, than seeing a reconvened Avengers -- still anchored around original vocalist Penelope Houston, and guitarist Greg Ingraham -- with one of the most explosive Class Of '77 members, Stiff Little Fingers (SLF), long led by singer-guitarist Jake Burns, and also boasting one other original, in bassist Ali McMordie...especially when you realize that the world of songs like "The American In Me" ("Ask not what your country can do/What's your country been doing to you"), or "Suspect Device" ("They play their games of power/They cut and mark the deck/They deal us to the bottom/But what do they put back?"), to name two respective examples, is (sadly and unfortunately) more relevant than they were back in the day, given all the crap that we're expected to keep on swallowing, economically and politically?
The Bottom Lounge itself is your standard issue neighborhood bar, not terribly fussy nor fancy, much like the bands themselves, I suppose. (Which is another way of saying, it's standing room only, literally -- I see one barstool in the corner that some punter has already commandeered for the night, leaving me pogoing on the balls of my feet for two hours. Such is life, I guess.)
The Avengers take the stage first, as Houston, decked out in black, recalls with a knowing laugh: "Last time we played here, it was, like, 92 degrees in the sun at Riot Fest. I thought I was gonna die, I thought it was gonna be our last set ever! Anyway, we're the Avengers, in case you didn't know..." And with that preamble out of the way, we're off to the races, as the band counts off and barrels through "Cheap Tragedies," "Thin White Line," and "Teenage Rebel," that still throb with all the meaning and menace that distinguished them when the band emerged in San Francisco, in 1977.
Ingraham proves deft and effective throughout the set, wringing feedback-laden leads as the mood requires -- from the faster efforts, like "We Are The One," to the midtempo one-two punch of "Corpus Christi" and "Uh Oh," and the night's lone slow burner, "The End Of The World," whose lyrics seem eerily apropos, in light of the Australian fires that ravaged their country ("Look down, your shadow's on fire/This day will blot out your past"). Houston describes it as "another one of these 40-year-old songs that is still applicable, sadly, today."
The rhythm section of bassist Hector Penalosa (The Zeros), and drummer David Bach -- standing in for respective cohorts, Joel Reader and Luis Illades, of Pansy Division, who couldn't make this tour -- keeps the proceedings crisp and tight, without getting in the way. Houston's voice remains gutsy and strong as ever, a must for putting across the emotional terrain of songs like "Desperate" ("Gotta get out of here, there's nothing here for me"). She's up to the task, and then some.
A lighter mood makes itself felt, too, as Houston notes, when she introduces "1-2-3" as "an easy song to sing along to, if you can count to three." Steve Jones and Paul Cook ended up reworking it for their own band, The Professionals, after the ex-Sex Pistols guitarist produced some sessions for the Avengers. It's not hard to see why they found it attractive, once the song's punked-up Chuck Berry drive kicks in -- serving as a reminder of the band's strong singalong melodic instincts.
The set ends with a romp through "Paint It, Black" (The Rolling Stones), emerging from a flurry of feedback-drenched howls and moans that Ingraham evokes so effortlessly, and "The American In Me," whose questioning of media and power structure priorities makes for a truly chilling counterpoint, coming after almost 20 years of imperialist wars that have driven our country into the red ("It's the American in me says it an honor to die/in a war that's just a politician's lie"). Only "We Are The One" would have offered as strong, or even stronger closing note ("We are not capitalist industrialists/we are not communists/we are the one"). Either way, Penelope and company have made their mark, and their point, tonight.
So how do you follow that type of set? By keeping the temperature up, as Burns and his merry men -- McMordie, who rejoined in 2006, plus longtime drummer Steve Grantley, and guitarist Ian McCallum, who've held those spots since 1997 and 1993, respectively -- demonstrate with an opening salvo of songs from the Nobody's Heroes/Go For It era. At first, the sound levels hover near the underwater mark, though Jake's trademark rasp and Les Paul-driven leads cut through the murk admirably.
By the third song ("Just Fade Away"), however, the soundman seems to figure out the balance, and it all comes together, in a flurry of downstroking, and rat-a-tat-tat drumming, driven along by the McMordie undertow. The audience responds with its own bursts of energy, one that leads Jake to describe the Windy City -- which has always boasted a fervent SLF following -- as "a bit of a hometown gig for me."
Officially, tonight's agenda focuses on the Inflammable Material album, released in 1979, which ranks among punk's unlikeliest success stories. Released by Rough Trade, SLF's debut became the first indie release to enter the UK chart, peaking at #14, and selling 100,000 copies -- a remarkable achievement for a band that had just been dropped by the major label who'd courted them (Island Records). (The affair inspired a key track on the album, "Rough Trade," which surely ranks alongside the Sex Pistols' "EMI" as one of the best anti-record label blasts ever committed to vinyl.)
As Jake notes, when introducing "Rough Trade," SLF had no expectations going into the recording, since "every record company on the planet had turned us down," he tells us. "So this was just make sure we had something to play to our grandkids, when we got old: 'This is what I did when I was young, and fuckin' stupid. Here we are, 40 years later, playing the same songs!" (Except for the last track, "Closed Groove," that is, for which Jake has always expressed disdain, and it's not hard to hear why -- as it's built atop a clunky, repetitive riff that had more common in post-punk, than SLF's full-blooded major chord blood and thunder.)
What's remarkable about Inflammable Material, once the band digs into it, is how well it stands up -- even its minor songs, like "Here We Are Nowhere," SLF's stab at Ramonehood, of which Jake cheerily says: "If this next one lasts more than a minute, we've done it wrong." They don't. So while its best-known tracks, like "Suspect Device," "Wasted Life," and "Alternative Ulster," are rightfully celebrated, lesser-known efforts like "Law And Order" and "State Of Emergency," deserve the same plaudits.
The band's 10-minute rumble through "Johnny Was" (Bob Marley) remains an equally noteworthy melding of rock and reggae, just as the Clash did, for instance, with Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves," on their own debut album. I've also had a soft spot for "Breakout," which kick-started a tradition of escapist songs -- understandable for someone who grew up in Belfast, and the Catholic-Protestant conflict that racked the city -- and gets a suitably giddy reading here.
And, while the overall muzzle velocity remains uptempo, cranked up to 10, Jake's got the storyteller touch, as he periodically pauses to explain the inspiration behind certain songs, like "White Noise" -- an anti-racist song that "kind of backfired," he admits, because "we used the violent, disgusting language we could think of, to point out out the error of their ways, of these fucking knuckleheads."
The song's subsequent release on Inflammable Material prompted the city of Newcastle to bar the band from playing there, even after the local paper printed a photo of SLF "playing in front of this huge fucking banner that read, 'Rock Against Racism,'" Jake laughingly recalls. "There it is." The audience howls back its delight.
Jake's explanation of writing "Safe As Houses," from Go For It, is equally priceless -- a song that the band essentially stopped playing, because "I stupidly wrote in a key that was too fuckin' high for me to sing," he recounts. "Now, I know what you're thinking: 'But Jake, any fuckin' decent musician will tell you, 'Just drop it a key, and sing it in that key.'" He pauses for the punchline. "That presupposes that we were decent musicians!"
Of course, Jake Burns and company are decent musicians -- well, way better than that, actually -- but such stories showcase a charming side. (This is the band, after all, that wrote, "No one is a nobody/Everybody is someone.") At times, the mood turns pensive, such as Jake's introduction of "My Dark Places," a song that tackles his struggles with depression. He notes that in the UK, 4,500 men take their lives every year, which amounts to one person every three hours ("It's pretty fucking terrifying, when you think about it in those terms"). It's one of the highlights from the band's last release, No Going Back (2014), which ranks among their best efforts.
Other highlights include the as-yet unrecorded "16 Shots," about the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, which makes an apt lead-in for the Inflammable Material songs, and one where Burns pushes his vocals to the emotional limit: "You got 16 shots, nine in the back/16 shots on a Chicago night/16 shots ended a young man's life!"
I can definitely relate to this song, having lived in Chicago during the mid- to late '90s, and saw how the Mayor Daleys and Emanuels of the world were already leaving entire neighborhoods to rot from malign neglect -- linguists, please withdraw the phrase "benign neglect" from the dictionary, as there's no such f#cking animal -- as they trampled each other to throw their city's huddled masses under the proverbial bus, in favor of those shadowy men behind the curtain (no women, because they're never invited to join that particular club).
A one-two punch encore of "Tin Soldier" and "Gotta Getaway" powers the set to a close, and sends the crowd home happily across the finish line. But, as songs like "16 Shots" demonstrate, tonight's show isn't only a celebration of the band's history, "it's also a celebration of the future, and looking froward," as Jake notes. On this evidence, both SLF and The Avengers have plenty more to say. Catch them if you can, miss them at your peril.
THE AVENGERS: Cheap Tragedies/Thin White Line/Teenage Rebel/Corpus Christi/Uh Oh/Desperation/We Are The One/I Want In/The End Of The World/1-2-3-4/Open Your Eyes/Car Crash/Paint It, Black/The American In Me <https://www.penelope.net/>
STIFF LITTLE FINGERS
Roots, Radicals, Rockers, Reggae/Nobody's Heroes/Just Fade Away/Strummerville/At The Edge/My Dark Places/Safe As Houses/16 Shots/Suspect Device/State Of Emergency/Here We Are Nowhere/Wasted Life/No More Of That/Barbed Wire Love/White Noise/Breakout/Law & Order/Rough Trade/Johnny Was/Alternative Ulster/ENCORE: Tin Soldier/Gotta Getaway
Gig Notes And Reviews
Stiff Little Fingers/The Avengers