Frank Turner in Whelan’s on December 9th 2012
Frank Turner’s cult-hero status is a thing of beauty. Having seen his popular hardcore band Million Dead fall by the wayside, the punk vocalist grabbed an acoustic guitar and began strumming his own brand of social-commentary-meets-protest, throwing in catchy lines about his own music that include “none of this is going anywhere“. And then, by fabulous quirk of modesty, it did. Turner reached arena scale back in the UK, even grabbing Billy Bragg – a man with whom he has a huge amount in common – as his Wembley Arena support act. He retired the song – The Ballad Of Me & My Friends – in honour of the achievement, until tonight.
Frank’s an unassuming, laidback kind of singer who climbs on a stage seemingly with the express intention of telling you about his life, and what he’s learnt. For plenty that’d be a huge turn off, but this is a man who has lived. Another line to The Ballad Of Me & My Friends is “and we’re definitely going to hell, but we’ll have all the best stories to tell”. And he does. Frank’s include the almost spiritual insight of Peggy Plays The Blues, an imagined evening with a deceased relative during which they get drunk, play poker and share dreams. If I Ever Stray’ tells us all to launch him into the sea should he ever lose his drive.
Turner’s never taken off in Ireland in quite the way he’s adored back home, but those who do follow him here are clearly incredibly impassioned. It takes only half a song for the singer to step away from the mic and let the Whelan’s audience take over, and while his vocals are solid rather than spectacular, the loveable song writing style really hits home. Wessex Boy connects more with me than most (I grew up just a town or two over from Winchester, the corner of England’s rural patchwork Turner’s referring to). Tracks both about and dedicated to various life-influencing figures – see Song For Eva Mae and I Am Disappeared – are a pleasant mix of surrealist introduction and glances at Frank’s past.
It’s the selection of tracks that border on iconic for Turner fans that really bring home his ability, though. Tonight’s set features nothing but an acoustic guitar (and occasional contributions on ‘air harmonica’ from the audience), yet Dan’s Song, The Road and The Ballad Of Me & My Friends are rampant, euphoric sing-alongs. Long Live The Queen is the kind of song title you might expect to flunk in Ireland, but it’s actually about a dead friend; the image of a young-life snuffed out too early, with friends instructed to party on in place. It’s hard not to relate to such imagery, and with such depth persisting, the show begins to feel like a flurry of singles.
It’s Photosynthesis that will likely always be Frank’s calling card, though. Dublin might not quite be home territory for the acoustic-punk star, but the Whelan’s crowd still sits itself on the floor unprompted as Frank mellows before the final version, true to tradition. That’s normally the moment when Turner thanks his band, but having gone solo for this tour he settles for a run through of the support cast instead, before Whelan’s collectively leaps to its feet to cries of “I won’t sit down, I won’t shut up, and most of all I will not grow up“. Turner’s not for everyone: for an opinionated occasional-protest singer that’s almost a given. Even for a venue as criminally small as Whelan’s, though (Frank clearly belongs somewhere far bigger), a few punters will be leaving tonight with bigger dreams. The boy done good.