FRANK TURNER + MICAH SCHNABEL + JESS GUISE – BRIGHTON DOME 04.03.20
A steady output of catchy singalong tunes, coupled with a relentless touring schedule, has taken singer-songwriter Frank Turner from ‘Campfire Punkrock’ (his 2006 EP) to headlining arena tours. Solo with acoustic guitar, or accompanied by backing band The Sleeping Souls, he has played literally thousands of gigs, including Wembley and the O2, and the pre-show for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. His music is heartfelt and personal, often with a folk punk tinge, and obviously connects with a wide audience. Of his eight full albums released to date, the last four have made the Top 5 of the UK Album charts. It’s quite a while since he played Brighton, so there’s a buzz of anticipation around tonight’s solo acoustic show.
The minimal stage set in the Brighton Dome confirms that this is most definitely a solo tour. All three of tonight’s acts front their own bands, none of whom is here tonight. There’s not a scrap of backline or percussion to be seen, just a mic stand and a DI box to plug into. A black stool acts as a side table for drinks. Four stark white pin spots illuminate a backdrop by artist Vanessa Jean Speckman, whose designs I noticed on sale in the merch area. It’s a pretty patterned banner, emblazoned with a bold stencilled motif: ‘STAY SOFT, STAY BRAVE’.
First up is Jess Guise, a slim figure with floppy blonde hair and a red patterned top, toting a jumbo acoustic guitar. I imagine that opening in a large venue as a solo act is a fairly daunting prospect, and I doubt her nerves are settled by the loud pop as she plugs in. The line is clearly not muted, and there’s a brief howl of feedback for good measure. “That’s what you get for playing first,” she quips, and launches into ‘The Fun Part’, which is ironically about the less enjoyable aspects of dating. It has a rather satisfying descending chord pattern and a falsetto vocal conclusion, and is warmly received. The hall is starting to fill up.
Jess has a charming line in self deprecating chat, confessing in a gushing way that she’s only gone and married the headliner, Frank Turner, so her presence here is “nepotism”. The supportive crowd doesn’t seem to mind at all. Endless touring must put a strain on relationships, so taking your partner along sounds like a practical solution to me, and from a tour manager’s perspective, a foolproof way of persuading the headliner to share a room.
After ‘The Countdown’, a wistful tale of waiting for love, there are a couple of songs from her new EP (released on 6th March) as Guise, the four-piece band she fronts. ‘Too Far Gone’ features gentle fingerpicked arpeggios accompanying a cute lilting melody. ‘Surprise’ brings another flurry of dancing notes from the guitar and a trilling vocal. Introducing the concluding ‘Brother In Arms’, there’s a moving story of how her late father taught her to play, and that it’s his guitar she’s using now. I’m sure he would be very proud. Jess Guise is pleasant company, and if you’re in the mood for some confessional folk pop, her songs are well worth a listen.
Jess Guise setlist: ‘The Fun Part’, ‘The Countdown’, ‘Too Far Gone’, ‘Surprise’, ‘What Have You Learned?’, ‘Brother In Arms’
I like Micah Schnabel before he’s even come on, having read that his usual band is the splendidly monikered Two Cow Garage. He’s from Columbus, Ohio, and has also released five solo albums. He takes the stage in a Breton cap and specs, and an Alpha flying jacket, his acoustic guitar decorated with an ‘Art or die’ motif. When he strikes up his first number, ‘How To Ride A Bike’, I like him even more. His lyrics, delivered in a gravelly American accent over chunky folk strumming, manage to combine pathos with absolute hilarity: “Being alive is so expensive, but being dead is such a lousy alternative.” Micah tells us he has been performing for twenty years, but confides he still gets nervous every time. The quality of his material is top notch, and hopefully the warm reception it’s getting from this crowd will boost his confidence a bit tonight.
‘Gentle Always’ is another cracking number, followed by the angular riffs and rapid-fire lyrical barrage of ‘A Celebration’. It’s like beat poetry, or maybe a kooky take on Gil Scott-Heron. I love it. The song concludes with a spoken section: “Maybe I don’t want to get rich rich or die trying. Maybe I’m okay with simply surviving…” which is given additional emphasis by Micah stepping well back from the mic to deliver it. By now I’m hooked, and making a mental note to grab a copy of his latest album ‘The Teenage Years Of The 21st Century’. The next song, ‘Death Defying Feats’ is a more reflective meditation on low paid work, while the lyric for ‘Filthy Cash’ depicts an American road trip through racism and discrimination, that starts with some trigger happy Border Officials and ends with a forlorn attempt to buy a coffee with cash in San Francisco. ‘Let The Boys Be Girls’ is a Two Cow Garage number, and is interesting enough to suggest that band would be worth checking out too. The languidly downbeat introduction to ‘Memory Currency’ puts me in mind of Mark Oliver Everett of Eels. ‘Emergency Room’ describes the American healthcare system from the user’s perspective. Anyone considering introducing something similar here would do well to listen to this song’s chilling lyric: “I feel so helpless and guilty, knowing we could save you, if we only had the money.”
Every tune is snappily catchy, and every lyric is a slab of poetic brilliance. ‘The Interview’ is a poignant question and answer session, probably rhetorical. The crowd is completely onboard by now, and there’s a huge clap along to ‘Remain Silent’, which features another stunning line: “When did being a decent human being become political?” Closing number, ‘Your New Norman Rockwell’ has more quick-fire vocals and a busily strumming guitar figure in the style of ‘Wake Up Little Susie’. Again, a spoken passage is lent emphasis by stopping playing and stepping back from the mic. It’s a great conclusion to a set of breathtaking quality. It was well worth coming out tonight for this alone.
Micah Schnabel setlist: ‘How To Ride A Bike’, ‘Gentle Always’, ‘A Celebration’, ‘Death Defying Feats’, ‘Filthy Cash’, ‘Let The Boys Be Girls’, ‘Memory Currency’, ‘Emergency Room’, ‘Jazz and Cinnamon Toast Crunch’, ‘The Interview’, ‘Remain Silent’, ‘Your New Norman Rockwell’
We still have the headliner to come of course, and the room is now full and buzzing with anticipation as a recorded introduction starts up. By way of a light show, the cloths flanking the backdrop are now lit to periodically change colour, or to reveal a stencil logo with the main man’s name.
Frank Turner bounds onstage clutching an acoustic guitar. He’s a tall figure with curly hair and a tidy beard, and he has very sensibly chosen to wear one of his wife’s “Guise On Tour” shirts from the merch stand. It is immediately apparent that the crowd here absolutely loves him, and are ready to sing along with pretty much anything from his extensive back catalogue. ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Friends’ is from his first solo album (he previously sang with hardcore band Million Dead), and sets the tone for the evening. The style is heavy strumming on the acoustic with massive chant along refrains that the audience are roundly encouraged to join in with. An array of overhead fixtures lights up the crowd for the air-punching singalong sections, as though to make sure there’s no slacking at the back. Frank has an easy manner with the audience, and the between song chat is entertaining and engaging. He clearly likes to keep a diary, and takes delight in informing us that this is show number 2,463 of his career, and the 15th time he’s played in Brighton. The stats also show that he hasn’t played a full show (other than an in-store) here for 8 years, for which he is sheepishly and charmingly apologetic. In ‘Long Live The Queen’ the backdrop glows red, and Frank is holding his guitar up, hitting it to orchestrate a large scale clap along. ‘The Road’ is an absolutely cracking song in the folk punk style, and elicits some enthusiastic singing from the audience.
The atmosphere is warm and inclusive, with very much the feel of a community sing-song. In his lyrics and manner, Frank comes across as a genuinely caring person whose heart is in the right place. He announces that local charity Allsorts Youth Project, which provides non-judgemental safe spaces for vulnerable young people, are collecting money at tonight’s show, and that also £1 from the cost of each ticket on this tour is being donated to a project in Sierra Leone. He’s funny too, with a series of amusing anecdotes about his early experiences with alcohol, facilitated by his late grandmother, who sounds like she was a mischievous character, to say the least.
The powerful strumming style necessitates frequent swaps of guitar, presumably for tuning. The busy guitar tech is introduced to us as Ben Lloyd, a member of Frank’s backing band The Sleeping Souls. It is also apparent, as the set progresses, that we’re working through the catalogue chronologically, with one or two songs from each album, in the order they were released. ‘The Next Storm’ is a standout number for me, with another big call and response figure getting everyone involved.
Frank confides after ‘1933’, that the ‘Be More Kind’ album it features on was hurriedly released, lest the prevailing zeitgeist of intolerance it describes should suddenly calm down. He needn’t have worried. After a couple of numbers from last year’s ‘No Man’s Land’, including the splendid folk punk jig ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’, we’re brought bang up to date with a brand new song. He politely asks the audience not to film it or post it online, as it’s a work in progress, and pretty much everyone I can see complies. That’s the sign of an artist who has a good relationship with his audience. Titled ‘The Work’, it’s a rather charming piece about married life.
Having completed our chronological journey through the Frank Turner canon, we finish the evening with a selection of punch-the-air favourites, starting with the excellent ‘Get Better’. The atmosphere by now has the zeal and fervour of an evangelical choir meeting, and there’s a huge amount of love in the room. The humour continues to the end. It’s a long journey to the dressing room, and there’s only him on stage, so he briefly disappears into the unlit area of the stage, house left, for the crowd to shout for an encore. All this is happening mid-song in ‘Photosynthesis’, which makes it even sillier and more fun. By the very end, Frank has the crowd in the palm of his hand to the point where they can and will follow fairly complicated directions. The result is the audience singing the refrain from ‘Polaroid Picture’, whilst he puts an entirely separate vocal line over the top. It’s an impressive thing to see and hear.
It’s been a most enjoyable evening’s entertainment, with all three acts turning in excellent sets. I’m particularly pleased to have become acquainted with Micah Schnabel’s work, and the rapport between Frank Turner, an artist very much at the top of his game, and his clearly adoring fans has been a thing to behold.
Frank Turner setlist:
‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’ (from ‘Sleep Is For The Week’ 2007)
‘I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous’ (from ‘Love Ire & Song’ 2008)
‘Long Live The Queen’ (from ‘Love Ire & Song’ 2008)
‘The Road’ (from ‘Poetry Of The Deed’ 2009)
‘If I Ever Stray’ (from ‘England Keep My Bones’ 2011)
‘Peggy Sang The Blues’ (from ‘England Keep My Bones’ 2011)
‘The Way I Tend To Be’ (from ‘Tape Deck Heart’ 2013)
‘The Next Storm’ (from ‘Positive Songs For Negative People’ 2015)
‘Love Forty Down’ (from ‘Positive Songs For Negative People’ 2015)
‘1933’ (from ‘Be More Kind’ 2018)
‘Be More Kind’ (from ‘Be More Kind’ 2018)
‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’ (from ‘No Man’s Land’ 2019)
‘The Lioness’ (from ‘No Man’s Land’ 2019)
‘The Work’ (new song)
‘Get Better’ (from ‘Positive Songs For Negative People’ 2015)
‘Recovery’ (from ‘Tape Deck Heart’ 2013)
‘Photosynthesis’ (from ‘Love Ire & Song’ 2008)
‘I Still Believe’ (from ‘England Keep My Bones’ 2011)
‘Polaroid Picture’ (from ‘Tape Deck Heart’ 2013)
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