Stiff Little Fingers singer-songwriter Jake Burns met the late Clash leader Joe Strummer just three times, but he says Strummer impressed him with this: “He gave me the confidence to get up on the stage and write songs for myself.” Burns — born in Belfast and a Chicago resident for the past two years — used that line at Axis a week ago Thursday night to preface “Strummerville,” where SLF’s harsh, hooky, Clash-like rock mutated into the Clash’s own “Clash City Rockers.” Somewhere Joe Strummer smiled and lit a spliff.
In the late ’70s, SLF were often considered little more than a Clash knockoff, albeit a pretty damn good one. Burns broke up one version of the band when he thought the songs sounded more like “cabaret” than rock. He now says they feel more like “folk songs,” which is to say that even if the political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed, the concerns of the songs can be applied elsewhere. The quartet — with original bassist Ali McMordie back in the fold, plus 10-year vets Len McCallum (guitar) and Steve Grantley (drums) — started with “Tin Soldiers,” “Roots, Radics, Rockers and Reggae,” and “Nobody’s Hero,” songs about standing up for your rights, resisting the call-up, comforting the afflicted, resisting the temptation to let “heroes” live their lives for you. Do these themes sound dated in a world torn by war on one hand and obsessed by mindless celebrity on the other? And keeping alive the Specials’ “Doesn’t Make It Alright” — the best anti-racist song extant — goes beyond righteousness. The songs SLF played once were very much of the moment; they’re now part of the canon of politically driven, ambitious rock and roll.
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