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Firm Believers

By all rights, Stiff Little Fingers should suck. What was once perhaps the best band of punk's second wave is down to a sole original member (although a second, bassist Ali McMordie, returned to the fold earlier this year) and, since the early 1990s, has seemingly been cashing in on a fading legend. The biggest surprise hidden within the binary codes that make up SLF's new DVD, Handheld and Rigidly Digital (released in May by Music Video Distributors), is that Stiff Little Fingers doesn't suck. In fact, these performances, mostly recorded in late 1998, show gruff-throated Jake Burns and his band of 40-something-ish colleagues at pretty close to the top of their game. There's enough grit and fire in these tunes, both the old and the new ones, to shock even the most jaded young punk and shame many of SLF's contemporaries right back into the closet at the punk rock retirement home.

Handheld isn't the exercise in nostalgia one might expect -- at this stage, SLF's reunion has lasted longer than its original tenure, and the post-breakup catalogue is more extensive. Most of the footage here was shot at a prerelease party for SLF's 1999 album Hope Street, and the band includes bassist Bruce Foxton, formerly of mod-superstars The Jam. While Foxton is (or at least was) a bigger star than Jake Burns has ever been, he mostly sticks to the background, allowing Burns (who looks more and more like a high school history teacher in his bespectacled middle age) to really show that he's still got it. The Hope Street tunes don't sound particularly out of place paired with Inflammable Material-era stuff like "Barbed Wire Love" and "Alternative Ulster."

The DVD is short on bonus material, and a performance of "Johnny Was" listed on the cover was either hidden or lost in production. The only extra is an interview with Burns, which reveals his late-'90s concerns to be similar to what they were in the late '70s -- namely, the ongoing conflict in his homeland of Northern Ireland. It's a topic that informs many of the Hope Street songs, too. It's a straight line from "Suspect Device" to "Last Train From the Wasteland." Burns' new songs are nowhere near as incendiary, but there's no doubting his earnestness; Burns may not scream the new tunes like a barking pit bull, but his voice is in good form, and his passion is obvious.

There's some behind-the-scenes footage mixed throughout the set, though most of it is standard-issue, band-on-the-road stuff. Does anyone really need to see a clip of Foxton eating a banana on the tour bus? Handheld and Rigidly Digital captures some inspired moments by a band many consider far past its prime. But the naysayers have got nothing on Jake Burns. To paraphrase one of his most famous songs, he's not interested in being your hero anyway.