Frank Turner - O2 City Hall, Newcastle 27.11.2019
It's been a good few years since I was last inside the Newcastle City Hall for a gig. It's been part of Newcastle's heritage since the late 1920's and there was a huge uproar when its future was put in doubt a few years ago. Luckily, it was saved by a local group before being transferred over to Academy Music Trust earlier this year, so it's now branded as the O2 Newcastle City Hall meaning, despite its art deco style architecture and large seated auditorium, it also has the regular O2 venue feel in certain areas, especially the bar. This juxtaposition seems to jar with the overall aesthetic at times, something I'm not overly comfortable with. I'm all for keeping venues open but this seems like a tough cost to shoulder.
Anyway, we're not here to talk about the corporate buy up of venues (although this factor will rear itself later in this review), we're here to watch a Frank Turner show. Frank is here as part of his tour in support of his current album "No Man's Land", a release that saw quite a few mixed reviews and raised eyebrows. The thought of a skinny white English singer talking about women from various cultural and historical points rubbed a few people up the wrong way and, while it's not my favourite album by him, there are several great songs on there. The accompanying podcast series that goes with it delves into the stories and rationales behind the songs making his intentions a lot clearer: most of these women have slipped from most people's knowledge when really they shouldn't have.
First to take the stage tonight though is Emily Barker, an antipodean singer songwriter who has worked alongside Turner several times now. She opens with 'Blackbird', a haunting song that sets the tone of her set. Her voice immediately reaches inside you and settles any fluttering inside you. It calms and soothes you while reminding you of people like Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, classic artists. I swear she could sing the phone book to me and I’d listen intently but she has some great songs in her repertoire. She treats us to ‘Geography’, a new song she’s been writing, before performing her tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe ‘Sister Goodbye’, which predates Frank’s tribute by a couple of years. She follows this with one of Tharpe’s own songs ‘Precious Memories’ which she performs acapella; it holds your attention, her voice soaring around the hall effortlessly with the sound of Emily clicking her fingers adding a simple rhythm to the song, proof that sometimes keeping things as bare as possible is the most effective way forward.
‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’ is another new song (played tonight for only the second time), and tells the story of the Kenyan environmental activist Dr Wangari Maathai, another inspiring woman who could have easily appeared as a subject on the headliner’s current album. Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in helping reforest Kenya. The song, along with ‘Geography’, gives us enough of a tease for her new album to have us wanting more. A cover of Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ is prefaced with the story of how the “Tunnel Of Love” featured on her family’s road trips when she was growing up, and is followed by her own ‘Disappear’. ‘Number 5 Hurricane’ is introduced to us in the style of Dolly Parton, a legend that Emily gives kudos to, as a “sad ass love song’.
Before closing with her final song ‘Sunrise’, Emily tells us that normally after the set she’d be out at the merch desk selling her CDs but tonight she wont be. The venue has insisted on charging her 25% plus VAT for the privilege, wiping out any profit margin she could make. She could charge more but doesn’t believe that to be fair for her audience so she advises us she’ll be out the front saying hi and that you can buy her CDs from her website. This is a horrible business practice that’s written into some venue’s hiring contracts. It also seems contradictory as I can't see the venue offering bands a cut of the bar takings for the night. Most bands sell merchandise as a way to help try to turn some kind of profit when touring, especially for these more independent artists. It's a lot easier for bigger bands to absorb this kind of price hike, dedicated fans are there to see the headline act after all. Most of the audience will only be discovering the support artist for the first time that night so if you like them there's a good chance you'd buy their CD on the evening there and then. But if you have venues adding a sales levy on top then it starts to come across as a little immoral. It's not a rare one off either as it seems to be coming more and more common. Perhaps it’s about time that this was looked into and fully legislated?
Turner’s current tour is a more sedate offering than his past few, with the venues being a little different to his usual haunts. The set is split with the first section focusing on songs and stories from the “No Man’s Land” album featuring just himself while the second section features himself and the Sleeping Souls performing his back catalogue. Frank is seated on what looks like a kitchen chair, alone at the front of the stage backed by a series of scrums. These are used to bounce light off and through, a simple theatrical technique that gives a feeling of change with each song without it being too overpowering.
The opening trio of songs are all London-centric, starting with a sprint through ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’ and followed by ‘The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead’ then a mournful ‘I Believed You William Blake’. Each song is introduced by Turner explaining the story behind it, effectively acting as an abridged version of the podcast series that accompanied the album. He’s warm and comes across as an excitable history buff, eager to make sure that everyone knows the background to each one. He knows he’s had some questions raised in certain areas about why he’s done an album like this and he tells us all that it’s with the best intentions. Frank is in a position where he can help educate people around these lost figures from history and he does so in an informative way. He chooses the stronger songs from the album to play tonight. ‘The Hymn Of Kassiani’ is hypnotising and ‘The Death Of Dora Hand’ gallops along. ‘Sister Rosetta’ is mentioned for the third time tonight, which is great when you consider that a lot of the audience didn’t know who she was this time last year. The seven song first set closes with ‘The Lioness’, the tale of the inspirational Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arwari, bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion. Keeping it relatively short allows Turner to keep the audience’s attention without making you feel that he’s lecturing you. A great decision and one that works brilliantly.
A twenty minute interval means there’s time to head out to the foyer and have a chat with Safe Gigs For Women, an organisation that Turner has brought along for the duration of the tour. The initiative is focused around making gigs safer for women, trying to make them free from harassment, threatening behaviour and physical assault. They encourage audience members to speak up (something I know 3S&O’s photographer Neil Vary has done several times at gigs), while working alongside venues and artists to help improve the situation. It’s horrible to think that at the tail end of 2019 we still need organisations like this to be so vocal but it’s brilliant that they’re actually out there doing something. For more information visit one of their stands at a gig or go to their website www.sgfw.org.uk.
The Sleeping Souls are first to take the stage for the second half, drawing us in with a gentler ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Friends’ before Frank retakes his seat centre stage. The band are arranged behind him but on the same level. For once drummer Nigel Powell and keyboardist Matt Nasir are to either side but just behind Turner, with bassist Tarrant Anderson and guitarist Ben Lloyd more behind the frontman and slightly obscured by him, depending on where you are seated in the room. It’s not an unplugged or acoustic set as such, it’s more a masterclass of the Frank Turner back catalogue, almost chronologically. Songs are deconstructed and discussed for our education and entertainment as “hits’ are often ignored to let Frank tell us more about his work. He adopts a tone similar to the writing in his book “Try This At Home” that was also released this year. Again, it feels like he’s here to bring us more into his world, his self depreciating sense of humour is charming and really engaging, thanking us for coming along to listen to songs of “love, death, addiction and mental health”, which honestly sounds a lot more fun than it sounds there.
‘Redemption’, we’re told, was supposed to be a love song to his then girlfriend but instead grew into a song about the collapse of society through modern technology, which probably explains why Turner wasn’t particularly too successful in love for a while. ‘Reasons Not To Be An Idiot’ is reimagined as a gospel revival tune with Turner telling us that it was meant as motivation for when he had low points with mental health and addiction. There’s also a bit of a throw back to his youth and a humorous nod to Axl Rose back in the “Use Your Illusion” tours with a cry of “Gimme some reggae” (have a search on YouTube for Mr Rose and that catchphrase if you don’t believe me) before announcing “that’s enough reggae”.
It should also be noted that ‘Reasons....’ is the first song of Turner’s trilogy to feature the character Amy and he plays ‘I Am Disappeared’ and ‘Tell Tale Signs’, the final two parts, straight afterwards, explaining how the character and his relationship with her changes over time. I’m really pleased to hear the latter as it’s one of my favourites of his, and I have a variation of the album cover tattooed on my right hand. ‘One Foot Before The Other’ is next, sounding more sinister and nightmarish than the original. ‘The Opening Act Of Spring’ is introduced as an apology song which is why Matt Nasir plays mandolin on the song as Frank tells us ‘It’s the most apologetic of instruments”.
It’s not all doom and gloom on the lyrical front though. ‘There She Is’ was written in Rome for his now wife while she was sleeping. As she wakes he asks her to go back to sleep or at least roll over so he can try and finish the song off. The performance of it is quite touching as Frank plays the keyboard on it after some tom foolery cantered around adjusting the height of the chair he’s having to sit it. Also touching is the introduction to ‘Don’t Worry’ which is dedicated to the writer, journalist and presenter Clive James who passed away that day, someone who’d been an influence on Turner, especially on the “Be More Kind” album which took its title from some of James’ writing. The main set closes with another throw back to an earlier time as we’re told that ‘Balthazar Impresario’ is about what he wants from life, the ability to travel the world entertaining people with his songs and stories.
There’s not an encore as such as they all stay onstage, encouraging us to stand up for ‘Photosynthesis’, ‘Recovery’ and ‘I Still Believe’ while the band still stay seated. We’re thanked profusely by Turner as the band launch into the final song, a darker and more sombre ‘Be More Kind’. Its pace is slower slightly than the original but this arrangement allows the song to take on a new life and shows that Turner, like Springsteen (one of his musical heroes), is happy to keep changing his material to suit his mood and need. It’s a talent that not many artists are willing to take or indeed risk.
The streets outside are slick with rain as we walk out afterwards, the city's Christmas lights reflecting in puddles and paths, a trippy reflection of the world around us. Frank Turner has taken us on a journey through his life and work tonight while still making us think, laugh and sing along. I’m not as euphoric as I normally am leaving one of his shows, its usual energy is uplifting and almost healing. Tonight leaves me looking inward, reflecting on the songs and their relationship with me. They still mean a lot, there’s always a lot to take from Turner’s work, but tonight it feels as though I’ve been let into the meaning behind them that little bit more. Show 2429 is done and dusted, but I really hope that he makes some kind of recording of this tour and format. It works well and allows him as and artist to connect in such a great way with the audience.
Frank Turner - https://www.facebook.com/frankturnermusic/
Emily Barker - https://www.facebook.com/EmilyBarkerHalo/
Review - Scott Hamilton