Thursday 19 June 2008

Mark Stewart and the Maffia / Stiff Little Fingers at Royal Festival Hall

Mark Stewart

Tonight’s performance has been arranged by Massive Attack, in their role as curators of this year’s Meltdown Festival, held on and around London’s Southbank. It is a slightly odd double-bill, with very little obvious correlation between the fans of one act and the other.

This means that when I take my seat for Mark Stewart and the Maffia, there are quite a number of empty seats around the place.

Stewart is a veteran of the Bristol music scene and in the early Eighties, his desolate, apocalyptic visions of a paranoid, surveillance-obsessed society seemed dark and histrionic and uncomfortable. He never really got his due at the time, but his legend has increased over the years and it is possible to draw a direct line through to the bleak industrial stadium rock of the likes of Nine Inch Nails.

Back then, Stewart was a haunted figure, apparently terrified of live performance, often shrouded in total darkness or completely hidden from the audience behind banks of speakers. He barely played live at all.

Tonight he is transformed. An introductory video clip shows him dancing around his house and saying that he left the music business for a time to spend more time with ‘brickies’. Whatever these guys told him, they have taught him how to finally enjoy himself on stage.

Mark Stewart bounces into view like an old prize fighter, light on his feet and constantly on the prowl. His voice is still unique – a distorted scream, treated and warped by Adrian Sherwood’s dub-trickery on production duties. It fades, it echoes, it explodes in violence and a deafening wall of feedback.

To call the Maffia a backing band does them scant justice. Drummer Keith LeBlanc, guitarist Skip McDonald and bassist Doug Wimbish are a fearsomely powerful unit, each a stunning musician in their own right, whose day jobs have included playing for the likes of the Rolling Stones, and (back in the day) acting as house band for Sugar Hill Records, where they laid down the funk for some of the biggest disco hits of all time. And yet they always return in their Tackhead/Maffia guise to assist the giant Stewart, who towers over them by a good foot and a half.

Wimbish’s bass can move your internal organs about, and watching him slap and scratch at it changes the entire way that you look at the instrument. McDonald is petite and fastidious, triggering searing shards of sound form guitar and keyboard, lost in his own world of noise.

Tonight Mark Stewart runs through a repertoire of old and new material, often seguing songs together in a free-style manner, literally lost in music. So entranced is he that during ‘Survival’ he falls over a monitor and almost lands in LeBlanc’s lap. He finds this hugely funny - which it is. The lyrics may be dark, but the music is unstoppable.

Stewart leaves the stage to a standing ovation, promising a ‘knees up’ later.

Headliners Stiff Little Fingers have filled the venue with their own fans, and have their own agenda – it is thirty years since their debut album ‘Inflammable Material’ and they are here to play it in its entirety. Kind of.

Their fans have occupied the front of the stage and formed a pretty impressive, if rather elderly, mosh pit. I see one guy balancing precariously on crutches, waving them above his head as he is battered back and forth.

After running through a few of their later songs, which include a tribute to Joe Strummer, SLF get down to the matter at hand. Opening track , ‘Suspect Device’ still makes the hair on your head stand up, and is one of the all time great punk anthems.

Singer Jake Burns may be a little more portly than in his youth (aren’t we all?) but still has an astonishingly powerful voice. He introduces each track in turn and the crowd roar along.

Not all of the songs have worn well. ‘Barbed Wire Love’ has dated badly and ‘White Noise’, the band’s controversially worded anti-racist song seems like an embarrassment to them now – they speed through it, omitting verses and segue it straight into the lengthy track ‘Johnny Was’.

This last is a bit of a revelation. I always hated it on record, lumping it in the same bracket as the Clash’s version of ‘Police and Thieves’, as an earnest but misguided failure. This live version is completely different, played almost as a martial song, with great drumming and the band marching on the spot. It works very well.

Under other circumstances, I would not have come to see Stiff Little Fingers, but tonight they show that they have lost little of their fire and spirit and that they are still worth the attentions of their devoted fan base.

Leaving the hall, my ears are assaulted by a titanic rumbling noise. Tackhead are playing at the back of the Festival Hall’s huge foyer and laying down a dub-heavy funk that has got an ever growing crowd of dancers skanking along.

I go towards the front of the throng just as Mark Stewart emerges in vest and tracksuit bottom to play a second set that is completely different from the one he has just finished in the main hall.

Tackhead morphs into the Maffia and old songs such as ‘Liberty City’ and ‘Jerusalem’ are disinterred. It is wonderful, and the crowd are so into it, (possibly with the aid of drink or drugs) that I see at least two people collapse against pillars or on the floor. At one point, Stewart too stumbles – “That’s twice!” he jokes.

My intended train home is a distant memory, but I’m not tearing myself away from this. At last they play the one song that I have wanted to hear, “Resistance of the Cell”. This was always the key track from the early days, and I genuinely think that seeing the Maffia play it back then is the single greatest live song I have ever heard. Tonight’s rendition does not quite live up to the earth shattering standards of yore, but it is mighty, mighty fine.

Stewart and the gang are still in full cry as I reluctantly leave. What is astonishing is that all his concerns about civil liberty, politics and data control seem more topical now than when the songs were first performed. It is also incredible that the band is not only still together, but can outperform virtually everything else that I’ve seen this year.

Here’s to the brickies.


Anonymous said...

This was indeed an astonishing performance by MS & The Maffia as if the last 15 years (for I reckon that it's this long since I've seen them)have never happened. The music doesn't sound dated as it was always in a class of its own. Stewart however is bogglingly changed in his approach. I particularly enjoyed his forays down the front of the stage in the second set, leaning over the audience, which would have been unimaginable in the 80s. Skip Macdonald now amusingly looks like one of Juan Munoz's spookily grinning figures. Compare here:

Anonymous said...

SLF were speeded up 1950s r'n'r. Mark Stewart and the Maffia were God-like (both times). Cracking review!