‘How have you never seen Frank Turner live?’ one friend asks incredulously, another simply smiles and says I am in for a treat.
Frank Turner first came to my attention in Million Dead, an early 2000’s post hardcore outfit known for their heavy bass driven songs and acerbic lyrics. While the razor sharp wit and commentary is still ever present in Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls, the music is much more of a punk folk vibe, and although I saw Million Dead live back in 2004 I have never seen Turner live until tonight.
First on tonights bill is The Homeless Gospel Choir aka Derek Zanetti, a folk punk musician from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dressed in a loud floral suit he cuts a striking figure onstage and the crowd warm to him instantly due to the honesty and warmth in his songs.
The topics are relatable whether you are 21 or 41, with songs like ‘Depression’ speaking about the struggles many of us face with the black dog, and similarly on ‘Crazy’, feelings of not fitting in. His standout song is ‘Normal’, which is, as he says, ‘a protest song’ and it strikes a chord with everyone who was ever an awkward punk or metal kid who didn’t fit the mainstream. Heads bobbing along singing ‘you’re never going to be normal cos you’re a punk’ the crowd sings back victoriously and it’s clear the The Homeless Gospel Choir is one to keep an eye on.
Next up is Arkells, a 4 piece Canadian rock band. I’m not sure what to expect when they barrel onto the stage full of life, chat and curly hair, and while I want to like them I just can’t. They remind me of Maroon 5 with a less nasal singer. Or an old Irish band Relish, or maybe The Script.
Don’t get me wrong, their songs are catchy and they are sure to have a hit with ‘The Peoples Champ’ or ‘Fake Money’ but they just are not my bag. Full of energy if a bit in your face and shouty at times the singer Max Kerman gets the crowd going but for me it’s all a bit of cliché, and if Urban Outfitters did rock bands..
So, by the time Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls take the stage I am pretty listless and not expecting too much but as they kick off with ‘Blackout’ from his new album Be More Kind the whole pace of the evening shifts up a gear.
Every person is singing along. And I mean SINGING. And the album isn’t even out until May. With its upbeat sound and simple pop hook it represents a change of direction from Turners previous acoustic offerings. On ‘1933’ he muses on the rise of the ‘alt right’ and how people don’t learn from history, and it sounds much more like the Turner that drew me in all those years ago.
‘Recovery’ from 2013’s Positive Songs For Negative People proves a crowd favourite with everyone cheering at its beginning and singing along yet again. At many times throughout the gig I am straining to hear Turner over the sheer volume of the crowd singing every single word, and it makes me smile at how loved he is and how everyone has taken his music to their hearts.
‘The Road’ which doesn’t sound unlike a sea shanty, could be about his epic tour schedule and travels as he announces tonight is show 2154. The man has stamina. The next song he dedicates to his American friends as a ‘love song’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ is just that. Talking again about the problems facing society as a whole but notably America, Turner hits the spot with lines like ‘Let’s make America great again by making racists ashamed again’. He follows this with what is a straight up love song, ‘The Way I Tend To Be’ and it’s beautifully simplistic and understated.
On ‘Be More Kind’ the title track from the forthcoming album we again see a softer side but it’s evident that Turner has been considering the state of the world and the political climate in both the UK and America.
Throwing some oldies into the set means getting to hear ‘Peggy Sang The Blues’, the rather blasphemous ‘Glory Hallelujah’ and ‘Long Live The Queen’ and they are glorious played live. The Sleeping Souls disappear offstage and Frank plays old songs solo; ‘My Kingdom For A Horse’ and ‘Dans’ Song’. On ‘Dan’s Song’ Turner is joined by Cahir O’Doherty of Fighting With Wire, and the two bounce off each other the easy way only old friends can. The Sleeping Souls return for ‘There She Is’ before ending the set on ‘Photosynthesis’. But Belfast crowds don’t let people off that easy and there is demand for ‘one more tune!’ and ‘two more tunes!’ until the band come back again and play ‘I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous’, the anthemic ‘I Still Believe’ and ending the encore on ‘Polaroid Picture’.
With a hefty 24 song set Turner is shaping up to be one of Englands finest songwriters and a damn hard touring musician. The people of Belfast have taken him to their hearts and made him their own, and I challenge anyone to go to a show of his and not leave smiling.