A couple of gigs that pretty much elevated Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls to the ranks of the Very Special Indeed, confirming his and their places as the best songwriter and “live” band the UK has to offer right now, and bumping up towards the very best of this current age.
It seemingly wouldn’t be Frank without somewhat of a ticket-mare at the moment, though, but for once, it worked out well for us, resulting in this (almost) double-header dose of Frank! When the O2 Academy level tour was announced, in advance and support of forthcoming album “Be More Kind”, I, as ever, was determined to be in on the pre-sale, buying some merch and an advance copy of the album from his own website to secure a pre-sale code. That, plus my O2 subscriber pre-sale, should sort me out for my preferred Bristol date, or so I thought… When the Wednesday pre-sale started, I was “on it” as usual from minute one, but despite using both artist and O2 portals I was getting nowhere; half a very frustrating hour later, and with “pre-sale sold out” signs appearing across the board, I reluctantly gave up on Bristol, bagging a couple (they’d only sell me 2! Bah!) of tickets for the Oxford gig instead. Shortly after, the “pre-sale sold out” signs went up for Bristol anyway, so I reluctantly faced the inevitability of pitching in on the general sale. Bollocks!
However, I then checked a day later, just to see what time the Bristol general sale was actually due to start on the designated Friday; the website however took me directly to the O2 pre-sale page and I bought 4 tickets, easy as pie! Happy with that! Thus it was that Rach and I set off with an eager Logan in tow (and Kasey on a hastily-arranged sleepover), down to Bristol for Frank Part 1… Got there at 7, and, also as pre-arranged, the medical team met us and showed us through to the First Aid Room for Logan’s Diabetes requirements, then to the VIP accessibility seating area, where a couple of seats awaited Rach and Logan. Not me this time, I was with the riff-raff on the floor! Hung out with some of said “riff-raff”, namely my old mate Olly and his delightful lady Caz, whilst main support Arkells were on. Sporting a loud-shirted vocalist who resembled Luke from “Modern Family” and had the voluble and quirky oddball stage presence of Indoor Pets’ Jamie, they entertained with some upbeat crisp powerpop; “People’s Champ” recalling 80’s funksters Hipsway, “My Heart’s Always Yours” the arena sweep of 80’s Springsteen, and final number “Leather Jacket” almost Posies-like in its’ powerpop bounce. Props too for a Frank like “love thy neighbour” attitude, and for their story about visiting the Arkells Brewery in Swindon earlier in the day!
I was joined by a late-running Matt between bands, keeping our usual spot as this sell-out crowd made for a very busy dancefloor! The lights smashed to black at an early 8.10, The Sleeping Souls bounding onstage and kicking into the pounding opening beat of newie “1933”… Frank took the stage last, to a huge ovation, guitar already firmly bolted on, spitting venom and righteous fury from the outset. And my hopes that the new material might be holding up a mirror to the desperate state of the Tory/ Trump/ Brexit-poisoned clusterfuck that is Planet Earth 2018 and saying, “what the holy fuck is going on?” were met immediately, “1933” being a huge rallying cry against all these “shower of bastards” and the hook, “don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn” another incisive motto for our troubled times. Wow, what a start!
Incredibly, it got better… “Get Better” (!) kept the momentum before the usual Frank welcome, this time to, “Show 2,160! Are you with me??” and the huge fairground hook of “The Next Storm”. A few technical difficulties early doors then threatened to derail proceedings, Frank irritatedly swapping guitars a number of times before one worked, but channelling his frustration into a venomous version of Plain Sailing Weather”, venting his annoyance by stomping on his singing platforms. A funkier newie, “Make America Great Again” was preceded by Frank calling out “the failed actor with the orange spray tan,” then “I Am Disappeared” was a brilliant early highlight, this poignant wallow through the heartache of everyday life fast becoming my favourite FT song, and one of my favourite songs, period.
“God’s got something against me – I’ve had a chest infection – but I’m back on form!” announced Frank, and he wasn’t just whistling Dixie… following the dark, dramatic and almost hardcore chorus rant of “One Foot Before The Other”, Frank promised to delve back to album 2, rolling out an unexpected “Imperfect Tense”, one he and the band allegedly hadn’t played for 8 years and had been practising, but which they totally nailed. “Opening Act Of Spring” cleared the mood, a delicate, pastoral delight with an audience participation chorus, and Frank made reference to having played “Long Live The Queen” at the Thekla 10 years ago before an understated and tender version, which then led to a solo interlude kicking off with a beautiful new ballad, “There She Is” (“people tell me they play my songs at weddings… not sure which ones, as they’re all sad!” Frank commented by way of justification for this one) and rounding off with a lusty singalong for “The Ballad Of Me And My Friends”. If we are indeed all going to hell, as this one suggests, we’re in good company…!
After the funky newie “Blackout”, Frank called for a circle pit for the frantic, Pogues-ish “Out Of Breath” before a titanic “Photosynthesis”, punctuated by a crowdsurf from Frank (Logan bolting to the front of his viewing area to check where Frank had disappeared to!), then a totally on-point address about treating others with respect and dignity, rounded off a set which had initially threatened to succumb to techy issues, but was pulled back from the brink by Frank’s sheer chutzpah and star quality. Four splendidly chosen encores followed; rousing singalongs to “Prufrock” and “I Still Believe” preceding the manic punk dash of “Four Simple Words”, with a slow-burn and melancholy version of “Polaroid Picture” then ending the night perfectly. I’d pitched up at the front by this time, so grabbed an easy set-list before meeting the fam, bidding farewells to Matt and hitting the road home, eulogising about Frank Part 1!
So, Frank Part 2 came 8 days later, and given Oxford’s increasing reputation for awful parking combined with a 6pm door time, Logan and I set off at 4 for a sunny Saturday dash down the A420. Unfortunately, our early departure availed us nought, as our usual Tescos car park was already utterly rammed with an unmoving queue to get in, all street parking was equally overflowing or not available yet, so we eventually parked up in the last spot at St. Clements Street car park, a good 20 minutes walk from the venue, a clear 45 minutes after arriving! So much for getting there early to get Logan a good viewing spot on the barriers, or so I thought… luckily, after joining the queue at 10 to 6 and hitting the venue shortly thereafter, some kind folks down the front, stage right, found a Logan-sized front barrier spot between them. Thanks people!
Chatted with our gig companions as the place rapidly filled up, before opener The Homeless Gospel Choir joined us at 7. Actually one bloke, a voluble bundle of nervous energy in a loud shirt, who introduced himself as, “Derek Zanetti, 35 years old, 5 feet 8, from Pittsburgh – home of the motherfucking polio vaccine… you’re welcome!”, we’d missed his Bristol set as we were settling Logan into his VIP seats and first aid room. Damn shame, as this was a funny, inclusive and thoroughly entertaining set – practically every splendid, Bragg-esque number being introduced with, “this is a protest song,” lots of Craig Finn-like off-mic chatter embellishing his witty lyrics, and no little between-song humour (“you think you’re going to a punk show but you end up in a cult with a face tattoo – amirite????” and, “I’m playing a gig in Grimsby tomorrow – I said I wanted to play a show where no-one’s ever been before!” being 2 of my favourites). Barking mad, but brilliant stuff. Derek was then joined onstage by Arkells for his last number, Arkells taking over thereafter for their own set. And they were no less impressive again; opener “Knocking At The Door” was a ringing, Gaslight Anthem blue-collar rocker, and the subsequent “Private School” saw a punter joining them onstage to play guitar, after pledging that she knew the D, G and E Minor chords! “Peoples Champ” was again a funky singalong chant with an acerbic dismissal of Trump (“I’m looking for the people’s champ… it ain’t you, Mr. President!”), and elsewhere there were chunky, Waltham/ Weezer-esque beats and powerpop riffs aplenty embellishing another pretty decent Arkells set.
By now it was total sardine city behind us – somehow Logan managed to squeeze through to the loo to wash his hands prior to his evening Diabetes injection, but when I tried to make the same journey I couldn’t get past the edge of the bar! Tough it out time then, methinks… tonight’s witching hour was 8.40, as a medieval acapella backing track heralded The Sleeping Souls’ entrance, Frank again bounding onstage, already guitarred up, ready to both rock and lead his devoted congregation in song. Again “1933” was a blistering opener, raising the roof from note one with indignant protest fury, follow-up “Get Better” maintaining both pace and skyscraping choral power.
“Everybody having a nice time?” asked Frank, then remarking, “actually, “nice” is the least of our ambitions for tonight…” before guitarist Ben chimed in with, “perfect!” A lofty goal indeed, but Frank and The Sleeping Souls tonight delivered possibly as perfect a set as I’d seen them play. Much like The Hold Steady, Frank’s lyrics, personality and performance inspire communality and inclusiveness, blurring the distinction between audience and performer, Frank almost operating as conductor for mass singalongs for much of tonight. A massive plug for the new album, released the previous day (“yesterday was a special day… it was Star Wars Day! No, not really, my seventh album came out yesterday… I normally don’t have anything against Zac Efron (star of “The Greatest Showman”, the soundtrack of which is the current incumbent of Number One in the Album Charts), but this week would be a good week to buy it [and get it to number one]… not for me, but for my mum!”) preceded a poignant rendition of the title track, after which Frank teased the crowd with, “we’re not just playing new songs…” before anther brilliant reading of “I Am Disappeared”. “The Road” was a massive campfire singalong, illustrating the communal vibe, and tonight’s slightly rejigged set featured an ace “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot”, Logan revelling in the “invisible llama” line (the outline of a llama also being projected onto the large TV screens onstage!). Frank’s solo interlude then featured newie “21st Century Survival Blues”, preceded by a lengthy explanation of the subject matter, and an excellent “Balthazar Impresario”, before “Blackout” saw Frank dive into the pit in front of us and shake Logan’s hand, much to my son’s delight. Again, “Photosynthesis” and Frank’s mid-song sermon of respect (during which the cramped front rows nonetheless sat down together – well, those of us without dodgy knees, anyway!) ended the set, the subsequent 4-song encore this time featuring another newie, the plaintive “Don’t Worry” before a pounding “Four Simple Words” and stripped-back “Polaroid Picture” ended a quite superb near 2-hour set.
We’d had some friendly stewarding during the set – the crew supervisor escorting Logan through the sardine squeeze to the loo, bringing him back through backstage, as even he couldn’t find a way through the crush! – and this continued afterwards, another steward organising guitarist Ben’s set-list for Logan, even before the encores had concluded! Mindful of the 20+ minute hike back to the car, we then set off pretty promptly, Logan buzzing about tonight’s show, before an entertaining drive home chatting about roadkill and ankylosauri (!) got us home a shade before midnight.
A couple of brilliant gigs then, Oxford shading it for me, despite the parking-mare and crazy sardine-like conditions. Either way, this was confirmation that Frank Turner, for me, is just about the best the UK has to offer right now. Very Special Indeed, no doubt; budge up, The Hold Steady and Nada Surf, you’ve now got some Frank-shaped company on the Top Table of Rock!