Full disclosure: having received a parking ticket moments before the English gentleman walked on stage, this reviewer was not in the best of moods.
All of the happiness I had accrued through the twee-folk of Jen Buxton, the rough and ragged punk of The Smith St Band and the dour banjo wordsmith that is William Elliott Whitmore , drained instantly on discovering I was $81 in the red. It was with in this less than sunny disposition that I trudged back into The Espy to rejoin the hordes eagerly awaiting the arrival of Frank Turner on stage.
The first thing that occurred to me was the brilliant marketing and planning of Turner’s Australian adventure. Recently finishing jaunts in Alice Springs, Darwin and Townsville, he had arrived in St.Kilda – pretty much a ghetto for anyone born within 500kms of London – on a Thursday evening to play in front of a backpacker crowd who didn’t have work the next morning. Genius!
Even more cunning was the inclusion of three support act to ensure by the time Turner joined the party, the entire crowd were absolutely wankered.
Arriving on stage to floor-cracking noise from the packed front bar, drunken British expats filling doorways, hallways, staircases, every tiny piece of real estate in the rickety old hotel, I fought through the ale-stenched masses and found the smallest amount of breathing space near the back. Apart from feeling the slightest bit alienated by being the only one in the crowd not from the motherland, the gap between the crowd and I only grew larger as it became apparent I was the only person who did not know every single lyric of Turner’s back catalogue.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the man’s music; I had bought his latest album England, Keep My Bones and was a big fan of 2008’s Love Ire & Song but these people were mad, fanclub mad.
‘Eulogy’ was screamed out by the amassed Britons at such a decibel level that it forced Turner slow down his chords to let the voices ring out; and it seemed with every line came a few arms punched in the air, more often than not holding, not pints, but jugs of beer.
After introducing himself and acknowledging his screaming countrymen, Turner dedicated ‘Reasons Not To Be An Idiot’ to “the single most annoying person I’ve ever met: my mate’s ex, a gothic social retard.” Not exactly the charm one would expect from an Eton-educated scholar but it shows Frank’s most endearing yet limiting quality, he’s the everyman.
He’s replicating a Billy Bragg type character, a voice of the people and all that socialist agenda. The problem is, it all seems a bit forced. It’s obvious he’s grown up listening to Shane Macgowan, but the predictable major chord change in ‘Glory Hallelujah’ over the repeated refrain “there is no god” shows him to be more of a Pete Murray than a Paul Weller.
Not to have a go at ol’ Pete (by all accounts he’s a lovely fella), but he is who he is, and Turner – with his impassioned, drunken sailor voice – just kind of shouts with upper-middle class diction yet changes persona from poet to rapscallion with little explanation or credibilitiy.
Perhaps it’s just that he’s not the trailblazer his outspoken political views hint at, suggesting instead that in his heart, he is a populist. He nostalgically drips through his adolescence on ‘Wessex Boy’, a song he feels the need to signpost wtih, “this is not a song about those fucking hipster towns.”
At his angriest he is reminiscent of early Bright Eyes, but where the intellect of Conor Oberst lends itself to inspired, poetic lyrics, Turner’s lyrics too often fall back on cringe-inducing clichés, like “music is my substitute for love” on the naff ‘Substitute.’
Even the inter-song banter is a bit predictable when he begins to bitch to the audience about an aggro, bogan Perth crowd the night before in which the keyboardist nearly got into a scuffle with a jealous boyfriend at the bar, you could have finished the story for him. ‘We get it, you’re lads’.
Once his band, including said tough-guy keyboardist, leave the stage, it allows Tuner an intimate, three-song solo set. Including an impromptu rendition of ‘Wisdom Teeth’, a request from a crowd member, heeded by the punk troubadour which it speaks volumes of his down-to-earth nature.
When the band returns to the stage they might as well have brought a Union Jack with them as the Englishness of Turner’s sentiment takes full flight with ‘Long Live The Queen’ and ‘Sons of Liberty’. But the empirical crescendo was the unveiling of a rendition of ‘Somebody To Love’, you really can’t get more British than Queen and it finished off the set with triumphant exuberance. The crowd of mad dogs and Englishmen were, of course, enraptured.
The encore begun beautifully with an unexpected cover of Ryan Adams’ ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, a moment that pretty much made that parking fine worth it, before closing the evening with the duo of ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’ and ‘Photosynthesis.’ The crowd predictably, and fittingly, joining a mass singalong of men grabbing each other and forcibly screaming the lyrics in each other’s faces.
Turner’s well-laid plans for a bit of patriotic beer-swilling had worked, and by the end even the walls were drunk. He might not be Billy Bragg, but there seemed to be enough people in St. Kilda that were content with him being Frank Turner.
– Chris Lewis