Frank Turner’s sold out show at the wonderful Ally Pally was his 2,431st gig since setting out as a solo artist in 2004. This is, in itself, a phenomenal achievement and is a sign of his fans’ passion and of his incredible endurance. Turner has re-invented himself on this tour, delivering a very different show from his usual high-energy performances. This was a reflective affair with many fascinating or humorous stories used to introduce each song; these insights undoubtedly helped give a greater appreciation of the songs and was pitched perfectly.
The set was structured into three parts. Firstly, Turner played a solo set of seven songs from his latest album, the intriguing ‘No Man’s Land’, which came from his love of history and illuminates the impact of significant women. Turner went into detail about the background behind each song, drawing the audience into the narratives. Then, after a short break, The Sleeping Souls arrived on stage for a succession of songs that are very personal to Turner and the places, people and relationships that have inhabited his life. Much of this material is about doomed romance and it was all delivered with good-humour and panache. Finally, when the story-telling element of the show was over, Turner and the band launched into a number of up-tempo old favourites that had fans dancing with abandon. The format worked well and ensured that the show built up to a crescendo.
Turner’s opening song was the fast strum of ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’, which was an ‘electric’ start considering this was a solo-acoustic performance. Next up was ‘The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead’, introduced as a Christmas song to laughter from the crowd. Turner injected plenty of emotion into this historical narrative, using a grittier vocal as the song built to a tense climax. Songs like ‘I Believed You, William Blake’ and the atmospheric, beautiful ‘The Hymn of Kassiani’ benefited from interesting historical backstories, told in Turner’s engaging and confident story-telling style. However, the highlights of the solo set were the rhythmic ‘Sister Rosetta’ and ‘Lioness’, the latter of which had a surprisingly full sound and audience interaction on the chorus. Turner was lucky enough to speak to the granddaughter of the Egyptian activist, Huda Sha’arawi, on whom ‘Lioness’ is based; she had no idea who he was!
The middle-section of the set started with nostalgic old favourites, ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’ and ‘I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous’. Popular with the sing-along crowd, these served to show that The Sleeping Souls had lost none of their impact by being ‘unplugged’ on this tour. Many of the songs played were written about ex-girlfriends and Turner noted that they are the subject of increasingly awkward conversations with his new wife, “When I say I wasn’t good at relationships, it wasn’t for want of trying.” Indeed, Turner confessed that he was so bad at relationships that his attempt to write a sincere love song in ‘Isabel’ resulted in a song about how modern technology will bring about the collapse of civilisation. This was a lovely rendition of ‘Isabel’ which slowly grew in layers, a strong beat emerging. Further high points included a strong ‘One Foot Before the Other’ and a driving, emotional performance of ‘I Am disappeared’, which seemed to rise up before a powerful moment when the instruments stopped and Turner’s forceful vocal was accompanied only by blinding lights; the arrangement was excellent. ‘There She Is’, a second attempt to write a sincere love song, was introduced with an amusing tale of how the song was written in a hotel room in Italy. It’s a genuinely earnest, open song that sums up Turner’s emotional journey to this point in his life: “I have wandered // Through the dark // Through the dirt // I was hurt // And in the end I came back to the start // and I stumbled…I fell in love and I was humbled.” Here, it was turned into an anthem with soaring backing vocals and thundering drums.
After the ‘unhappy love-song’ and story-telling part of the show was over, it was time for a series of crowd pleasers beginning with ‘Balthazar Impresario’ and then a series of energetic songs like ‘Recovery’ and ‘I Still Believe’. A Frank Turner crowd is used to being on its feet and for these songs people were up jumping and dancing with a palpable sense of collective release, accentuated by the fact that both the audience and the performers had spent the entirety of the show to this point sitting down. The final song, ‘Be More Kind’, left us with a message to take home.
Earlier on, Emily Barker had provided excellent support. She treated the audience to the lovely finger-picking of ‘Geography’ and the beautiful melody of ‘No. 5 Hurricane’ amongst her nine-song set. Her cover of ‘Tougher than the Rest’ came from long car journeys as a child when one of the few albums her family could agree to listen to was Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’; she did justice to a great song. Her most engaging song was ‘Sister Goodbye’, written about Sister Rosetta before Frank Turner wrote his song on the same subject. The song was written from the perspective of Rosetta’s lover, Marie Knight, who would do Rosetta’s make-up before they took to the stage as a duo. After Sister Rosetta’s death, Knight prepared her for the grave, doing her hair and make-up for one final time. It was intense, emotional, powerful.
After nearly 2,500 shows, Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls are well-practised in delivering memorable performances. This was an evening of historical story-telling and confessional narratives. The end result was a deeper connection between the crowd and the songs and between Turner and his fans. Turner will be headlining a series of solo gigs early next year and, if the performances are anything like this memorable show, they are highly recommended.