Three years ago, I saw the skinny, thirty-ish English singer-songwriter play a (just) sold out show at The Media Club. The guy behind me bought the last ticket and half a dozen people behind him stood around looking rather confused they couldn’t get in. Frank Turner sold t-shirts and drank beer at the merchandise stand before he took to the stage and plied his solo craft to the one hundred and fifty people that packed the club.
Fast forward a mere three years and Frank Turner has amassed a rather large array of fans. Selling out Wembley Arena in his native UK to twelve-thousand five-hundred people put the folk-punk artist into another level of musician. The Sunday, October 20th performance at The Commodore Ballroom was a natural progression, at least in terms of size, from his previous Vancouver gigs at The Media club, The Biltmore, and The Venue.
Turner’s music and shows require and actively promote intimacy. With larger audiences, and therefore venues, Turner strives to maintain the relationship with his fans that made him what he is today.
Turner opens his show with “I Still Believe” and has the audience in an instant frenzy with his heartfelt emotions and sing-along lyrics. With reassurance that Turner still believes in, “guitars and drums and desperate poetry”, an excited crowd see Turner for the first time without his guitar.
He’s buggered his back and been told by his doctor, “You’ll be fine if you cancel all plans till Christmas.” Turner scoffs at the thought and pulls up his crisp white shirt to display a back brace. He plays guitarless with his band, The Sleeping Souls. For a man wearing such a chiropractic device he still manages to jump around more than his doctor would probably approve.
As Turner works through some of the tunes from his latest and fifth release Tape Deck Heart, one cannot help but feel a sad sense that Turner’s ability to connect with a crowd got lost somewhere along with the ten-fold increase in punters. He churns out “Wessex Boy”, a fantastic tune about returning to your hometown, and “I Am Disappeared”, a song about meeting Bob Dylan while hitchhiking, among other things. Turner plays his inspiring “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” which sees Turner blurt out, “We planned a revolution from a cheap Southampton bistro,” as the crowd sings and claps. Many a hand is waved in the air but there’s a slight sense that it’s all, “not quite as good as it used to be,” at least for some.
It’s grossly unfair to judge Turner and to compare his performance with the half dozen shows I saw him play in front of two hundred people only a couple years ago. As he and his band bang out “Love Ire & Song”, he dedicates it to the hardcore fans (or something to that effect); the lyrics bring home the honesty of his music and the surprise of his relative success.
“I’m not interested in traveling around the world and just talking to a bunch of heads,” Turner says and engages in as much audience participation as any artist could ever muster. Turner’s “Photosynthesis” was written for audience involvement and as he sings, “I won’t sit down and I won’t shut up,” he leads the audience into the perfect “And most of all I will not grow up.”
His band leaves the stage and Turner is presented with an acoustic guitar; he jokes that everyone should break their doctor’s orders at least once a day. Turner’s musical ability really comes into its true brilliance when it’s just him and a guitar. He covers The Weakerthans’ song “Plea From A Cat Named Virtue” and his undeniable genius – and yes that’s a big word – really falls into place. He manages to single-handedly warm, touch, and break your heart within a few fleeting chords.
His ability to craft a song into a folk song and then craft it again into a protest song can and should not be ignored.
Whether that was Turner’s finest moment of the show is a matter of conjecture, but next time he passes through town I hope his back is better and, with absolutely no disrespect to them, that he leaves his band at home.