Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Skinny Lister, Will Varley
Academy, Manchester, 24th November 2015
On a tour which has seen him playing two nights at most stops, Frank Turner and his band together with an impressive little support bill – all Xtra Mile artists to boot – get the Louder Than War once over at the penultimate gig of the tour on the second of the two night run in Manchester.
And an embarrassment of riches indeed on the Xtra Mile label, even without regular labelmate and pal Beans On Toast with his new album imminent who would have fit just as comfortably into the bill. Not far down the road from Beans though is Will Varley. His ‘Postcards From Ursa Major’ following on from 2013’s ‘As The Crow Flies’ has cemented his reputation for songwriting which switches from the irreverent and bizarre to the keenly observed and thought provoking. Opening the show, he tended toward the former, cats on the internet a speciality, punctuating his material with asides and quips with the audience which at one point saw him losing the thread (for the record, around the point where Nick Clegg appears playing on the Game Boy Advance bit in ‘I Got This Email’). All part of his endearing ramshackle charm. Somewhere he’ll probably have been called a modern day troubadour (but so too will have Frank Turner), and if not, Louder Than War grabs the exclusive.
Skinny Lister, a band totally dedicated to gigging and rum drinking – oh and the almost obligatory double bass carrying, crowd surfing of Michael Camino – could afford to even omit some of the best songs from ‘Down On Deptford Broadway’, and still whip up a storm. They are a band with unpretentious high energy songs and an expectation that an audience are going to willingly roar along with ‘John Kanaka’ and jig or stomp along to their guitar and accordion led shanties. While Will and the Skinnies might have had the fun, intensity and passion dials rocking, Frank had the needle not just in the red but whatever lies beyond – something like a white hot vitality.
You can’t deny the fact that he gives good value. Possibly the hardest working musician on the circuit, Skinny Lister included. As well as spouting forth on One Direction, losing shoes when crowd surfing, the Paris shootings and ideas for his new book, his mid afternoon chat with Louder Than War’s Ian Critchley revealed the fact that the first night’s crowd were so loud that they damaged some of the onstage equipment. The natural thing to do being to wind up the Tuesday night crowd by telling them how good the Monday crowd was – ever the showman working the crowd. Not that they needed it.
Opening with ‘Eulogy’ – the first of any number of songs which might be classed ‘explicit’ and that’s before any of the between song banter – it was statement of intent, setting the scene for what would probably be politely classed as audience participation. More like a mass salutation, there can’t have been many among packed into the Academy who didn’t join in with a full throated roar with gusto. “Not everyone can be, Freddie Mercureeeee” indeed. Neither did they need any encouragement to heed the proposals to get the f**king party started or get their f**king dancing shoes on.
You can see where the Skinnies got their template with ‘Try This At Home’ the type of frantic romp giving Frank and the band the chance to burn up some of the adrenaline of arriving on stage before the Levellers styled rapid fire tirade of ‘One Foot Before The Other’ which had him on the security barrier and in the arms of the front row, the biggest threat coming from an inflatable snowman.
Racing through a Springsteen length, twenty eight song setlist, his two rules for his gigs, “Don’t be a dickhead and if you know the words you gotta f**king sing along” found strict adherence and there was no way the latter in particular was going to go unheeded. The instant recognition of the opening notes and words of every song were belted back at the stage in an attempt to compete with Monday’s mic breaking crowd.
Donning the electric guitar and risking insulting Dylan, ‘Josephine’ gave him a chance to show off his metal riffs, Slayer being the band of choice this evening (Monday got Iron Maiden) although had he noted that Anthrax were down the road at the Apollo he may well have paid tribute. Then there were the solo acoustic moments which will have sated those who he observed in his recent book, tend to prefer what he used to call his ragged solo fumblings, yet when he does something like ‘Love Ire & Song’, tonight dedicated to Nick Alexander, the Paris atrocity still strong in the memory, it might be hard to disagree with that view; the song evolving into a full band delivery and a celebratory singalong, which continued with ‘Glory Hallelujah’, everyone joining in enthusiastically with the football terrace chant of “there is no God!” like joyfully anti religious zealots.
In The Sleeping Souls Frank has a top band. It might be his name on the ticket but the billing and the backdrop readily acknowledge the fact – not quite up there with Springsteen’s E Street Band maybe but Frank would be thrilled with the association. In their leader they have a model of what he calls people who play music. Yeah, he may espouse the notion in his songs that there are “No such things as rock stars, just people who play music. Some of them are just like us and some of them are dicks” – thankfully Frank and his guys stand proudly with both feet firmly on the ground as the former.