Live: Stiff Little Fingers / Slim Jim Phantom Trio

Epic Studios, Norwich March 21, 2023

by Dave Stevens

Slim Jim Phantom was the drummer with 1980s rockabilly trio The Stray Cats, and his Slim Jim Phantom Trio provide similar fare, with the main man on vocals and playing his trademark stand-up drum.

They start with Rumble In Brighton, with the chorus occasionally changed to “rumble in Norwich”, followed by a cover of the Carl Perkins classic Matchbox.

Birthday boy: Slim Jim Phantom (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Birthday boy: Slim Jim Phantom (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

This sets the tone for the set with Stray Cats hits interspersed with rock’n’roll standards from the likes of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.

The trio’s sound is sparse, with Rex Elle’s guitar soaked in reverb, but it’s well-defined and characteristic rockabilly. It’s a feelgood set and they are having fun.

Having fun: Jennie Vee (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Having fun: Jennie Vee (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

There’s plenty of chat between songs and Slim Jim tells us that Norwich was the first city the Stray Cats played besides New York and London.

Tonight is also his birthday, and a cake with candles and balloons are brought on stage during the set, heralding a rousing version of Happy Birthday from the audience.

Soaked in reverb: Rex Elle (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Soaked in reverb: Rex Elle (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

Bassist Jennie Vee (who’s also the Eagles of Death Metal bassist and Slim Jim’s wife) asks “Is she really going out with him?” and the trio launch into an excellent cover of The Damned’s New Rose. It’s a contrast to the rest of their set and is perhaps included as a nod towards the punk roots of the main act.

They end with Rock This Town, and it’s been a really enjoyable opening to the evening’s proceedings.

It's a feelgood set from Slim Jim Phantom (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
It’s a feelgood set from Slim Jim Phantom (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

Before Stiff Little Fingers come on, there’s an excruciating selection of comedy songs from the likes of Terry Scott, Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker.

But finally the lights dim and the now traditional opening of Go For It strikes up over the PA.

The Belfast punk veterans – on what seems to be their annual visit to Norwich – comprise founding members Jake Burns on guitar and lead vocals and Ali McMordie on bass and backing vocals, along with more recent (1990s) members Ian McCallum on guitar and backing vocals and Steve Grantley on drums.

Ali McMordie at his hometown show (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Ali McMordie at his hometown show (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

As they hit the stage dressed mostly in black, Burns points out that “this is swankier than The Waterfront”. They start powerfully with Straw Dogs and Nobody’s Heroes, with its “Everyone is someone” lyrics that give this tour its name.

New song The Tower In London about the Grenfell tragedy, meanwhile, shows they can still write acerbically.

Steve Grantley: A powerhouse performance (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Steve Grantley: A powerhouse performance (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

SLF recorded the Specials song Doesn’t Make It Alright for their second album, and Burns introduces it as a tribute to the recently deceased and hugely missed Terry Hall. It’s a one of a number of reggae/ska covers that SLF have adapted in their own inimitable style, and we get three of them tonight.

Burns’s vocals are as powerful as ever and his guitar playing is excellent. It’s great to see a guitarist who isn’t constantly changing instruments and relying on effects.

Jake Burns: As sardonic as ever (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Jake Burns: As sardonic as ever (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

McCallum has a similar uncomplicated approach and the interplay of the two guitars is a key element of the SLF sound.

Norwich resident McMordie, meanwhile, is leaping around and having a great time while laying down solid bass lines alongside Grantley’s powerhouse drums.

Ian McCallum is the perfect foil for Jake Burns (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Ian McCallum is the perfect foil for Jake Burns (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

This line-up has been together for 17 years and their sets had been getting a bit predictable, but tonight feels fresher thanks to a number of changes.

Burns introduces My Dark Places by telling us of his struggles with depression, and urges anyone with similar problems to talk to friends and family rather than stew in silence.

Stiff Little Fingers' Ali McMordie (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
Stiff Little Fingers’ Ali McMordie (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

Many of the old SLF songs remain as pertinent today because – as Burns sarcastically notes before 1981’s Silver Lining – things “are so much better nowadays”.

McCallum switches to a more acoustic Celtic sound for the slower Each Dollar A Bullet and Harp but it’s quickly back to business with a full-on punk assault as At The Edge, Wasted Life, Gotta Gettaway and Suspect Device end the main set.

It's a fresher set from SLF (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)
It’s a fresher set from SLF (Picture: Jason@screamphotographic)

Grantley starts the encore with the militaristic drum beat of Bob Marley’s Johnny Was and the band come in with guitars sounding like machine guns, before SLF anthem Alternative Ulster replaces the usual closer of Tin Soldiers.

And with so much great material at their disposal to work with, there’s plenty of opportunity for equally strong and varied sets in future – assuming, fingers crossed, that these legends keep returning for more.

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