LIVE REVIEW: Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, O2 City Hall, Newcastle, Wednesday 27 November 2019
When you’re an artist who tours as incessantly as Frank Turner, keeping things fresh must be a constant challenge, particularly when you have more than 2,000 gigs under your belt.
So when it comes to Gig No. 2,429, which this was, you’ve got to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to keep the punters rolling in, particularly when you’ve played the same city just four months earlier.
Even by the hard-working folk-punk singer’s standards that’s a quick return visit, but this was a very different show to the one he put on at the O2 Academy in July.
For a start, since then he’s released a new album, No Man’s Land, his eighth studio offering, and secondly, this audience was all-seated.
So while the show lacked some of the energy of your usual FT&TSS gig, it was no less interesting, thanks largely due to the format the evening took.
After a beguiling 45-minute opening set by sometime collaborator Emily Barker, Turner took to the stage for a solo set of songs and storytelling which harked back to his roots – just one man and his guitar.
This was how he started out, and although he’s come a long way – enjoying Top 5 albums, filling arenas and appearing in front of a TV audience of millions at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony – you get the feeling this is where he’s in his element.
The set was made up of songs from his latest album, which is all about remarkable women and their achievements, many of which had never been immortalised in song before.
Thus we were treated to renditions of Jinny Bingham’s Ghost, The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead and The Death Of Dora Hand.
If you see a pattern emerging, it’s because death was one of the recurring themes tonight, along with unhappy love. “Don’t worry, it’s not all like this – there are a few songs about mental health and addiction too,” quipped Turner.
The pick of the new songs was Sister Rosetta (about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the American singer whose style was a huge influence on the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll) and The Lioness (about pioneering Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi).
After a short interlude, Turner was joined onstage by his band the Sleeping Souls for an unplugged set, and this is where things got even more interesting.
He promised a deep dig into his back catalogue, and certainly delivered, with tunes from all seven previous albums making the cut. England Keep My Bones was most prominent (five songs), followed by Love Ire & Song (four).
Turner’s longtime backing band The Sleeping Souls – Ben Lloyd (guitar, mandolin), Tarrant Anderson (bass), Matt Nasir (piano, mandolin) and Nigel Powell (drums) – are all accomplished players, and made the task of turning old songs into something new look very easy indeed, which it isn’t.
The set began with wonderful reworked versions of two old favourites, The Ballad Of Me And My Friends, and I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous.
A trilogy about the long-suffering ex-girlfriend who he refers to as Amy (not her real name) formed the backbone of the set, with I Am Disappeared the standout of the three.
Frank is happily married nowadays, and switched to piano for the heartfelt There She Is, which he wrote for his new wife, and it acted as the gateway for the ‘greatest hits’ finale to the show.
No Frank Turner gig would be complete without Photosynthesis, which got the crowd to their feet, and they remained standing for more big hitters in the shape of Recovery and I Still Believe.
The 20-song set was closed with Be More Kind, the title track of the album inspired by a poem by Australian writer and broadcaster Clive James, whose death was sadly announced earlier in the day. Turner dedicated the show to him, and I think he would have approved.
Dispensing with the rock star trope of the fake encore, Turner thanked the crowd for coming out in such numbers on a school night, and promised he’ll be back next year, and the year after, for as long as they’ll keep having him. To paraphrase one of his own songs, Long live the king.