The sun is still beating down with staggering strength on Custom House Square as gates open, with seemingly every contingent of alternative culture gathered together for a rather varied evening of music. Aging punks, dreadlocked metalheads, drag artists and steam punks are just several examples of the numerous subcultures represented tonight, and the amount of intermingling between the groups is heartening to witness.
Tasked with the unenviable and drastically early opening slot are The Toy Dolls. However, the band takes it in their stride as they quickly win over the small congregation with their irreverent style of punk rock, seasoned with touches of ska and new wave, adorned in novelty glasses and deliciously garish attire. The highlight of their set, the frenetic closer ‘Harry Cross’, culminates in a gloriously choreographed routine which all three members synchronizing perfectly in a feat of instrumental acrobatics; a succinct encapsulation of the overall joie de vivre of their set.
“We make dark music for dark times,” announces front man Andy Cairns, as Therapy? lead into the monolithic riff of ‘Potato Junkie’, with its wonderfully unconventional vocal hook of “James Joyce is fucking my sister.” Lovely stuff. Tonight’s set is a reminder as to why this local power trio made such big waves in their heyday, as they plough through a treasure trove of angst-ridden alt. rock anthems with plenty to spare. ‘Knives’ features a spat delivery from a particularly manic Andy, leading into a diatribe against both Boris Johnston and Donald Trump (which goes down verywell with the crowd), prefacing a blistering performance of ‘Kakistocracy.’ The hits keep coming with the juggernaut choruses of ‘Trigger Warning’ and ‘Teeth Grinder’ garnering mass sing-along’s, before a surprising turbo-charged cover of ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?) paying tribute to the late Pete Shelley. Rounding off with the formidable ‘Success is Survival’, Therapy? Clearly demonstrates why they are one of this country’s most unique and vital musical exports.
New Model Army was always going to be something of an outlier on this bill. Even though the band benefits from a significantly larger gathering, their folk-infused hard rock struggles at first to jibe with the predominantly punk audience. This isn’t helped by the symphonic swell of opener ‘Storm Clouds’ almost burying Justin Sullivan’s vocals in the mix, with the sound woes only being rectified a few songs in with a more successful ‘Lights Go Out’, the first song to get any notable audience response. While there are clearly a few diehards thronged towards centre stage, the more overblown and, dare I say, pompous nature of New Model Army’s sound sits incongruously alongside the exuberant energy of the rest of the acts. That said, ‘Angry Planet’ does fare better, thanks to its charged riffage and more socio-environmental lyricism. Old favourites ‘Green and Grey’ and ‘I Love The World’ receive a similarly welcoming reception.
By the time the headlining home-grown heroes take the stage, a rather inebriated audience is raring to go. Stiff Little Fingers cut straight to the chase with an opening attack of ‘Law And Order’, ‘At The Edge’ and the stellar ‘Suspect Device’, with each one more rapturously received than the last. Jake Burns pauses for some inter-song banter, having a pop at Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh before launching into ‘Guitar and Drum’, itself a commentary on the age of the talent show. Of course, the Belfast punks were very much a product of their time, as evidenced by much of their back catalogue, but they demonstrate that they are sensitive to ongoing socio-political concerns with the as of yet unrecorded ’16 Shots’; depicting the unprovoked police killing of a young man in Chicago. Admittedly, this unfamiliar cut leads to a something of a lull in the crowd response. Luckily, they have plenty of fan-favourite bangers ready to fire out in quick succession, with the Clash-inspired ‘Strummerville’ and ‘Wasted Life’ being particular highlights. With the rousing ‘Alternative Ulster’ bringing the night to a close, there’s an uplifting sense of unity amongst this diverse mass singing together. It’s a welcome thing, as given recent local events many of Stiff Little Fingers’ songs feel unfortunately timely; a hymn-sheet for a unified community to learn from the mistakes of the past in the form of flawlessly delivered punk rock.