“I’m a professional entertainer actually,” Frank Turner told me a couple of hours before the show, “That’s my job description.”
As Frank Turner stands centre stage at the Corn Exchange, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagreed. Standing with his arms spread wide and a guitar slung loosely at his waist, he orchestrates the crowd in front of him like it’s the most natural thing in the world. We’re approaching the two hour mark of the gig now, and for the entirety of that time, Turner has completely and utterly owned the stage. This, it seems, is the result of a decade on the road. From the days gone by of playing in noisy, uninterested bars; to the more recent challenges of performing to sold out arenas and international crowds, Turner has learned how to not only go out on stage and play a guitar, but to put on a show that will, and I quote, “Have the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders for a few hours.” And shows like this do not come about by accident.
The first sign of this is in the support act for the evening, who are a bewildering one at first glance. As American electronic dance duo Koo Koo Kangaroo bounce out onto the stage in black shell suits with sprayed gold accessories, there’s more than a few worried looks darting around the crowd. This is an indie gig, right? An evening of folk, punk and rock & roll. What on earth is this? Up on stage meanwhile, Koo Koo Kangaroo are busy stretching off in a fitness video-esque regime, while asking who in the crowd likes dinosaurs. They then sing a song about said dinosaurs atop a thumping computerised beat, and then follow with another about friendship bracelets. It was shortly after this, at about the point where Koo Koo Kangaroo had the entire audience making whale noises, that it was apparent that everyone had booted their self-conscience well and truly out of the room and were having an absolute ball. And therein begins the start of the Frank Turner show, where ultimately it seems, the goal is for everyone to have a good time.
By the time Turner & The Sleeping Souls take to the stage to rapturous cheers and the age old cries of sea shanty ‘Haul on the Bowline’, the crowd is already simmering in anticipation, and it doesn’t take much for them to explode. ‘Don’t Try This at Home’ kicks things off in a typically raucous fashion, before a couple of more recent numbers have the crowd singing as one, and it’s immediate to see that Turner has reached a point where he flourishes as a showman. Acting out his words as he sings and gesticulating wildly to himself and anything else for reference, Turner stalks the stage, and it’s evident that they’ve done this a thousand times before. While Ben Lloyd pogos around his microphone and Tarrant Andersen jabs and thrusts his bass guitar with robotic flamboyance; Turner leads the crowd, letting them take vocals where he knows they can, and conversing with them throughout. There’s stories from former gigs in Cambridge thrown in before referencing The Portland Arms in ‘Wessex Boy’, he has crew members on stage for star jump routines in ‘Recovery’, and as he leads the congregation for a mass sing-along of atheist anthem ‘Glory Hallelujah’, the performance is just about as engaging as they come.
When we’d spoken earlier that afternoon, Frank Turner had been quite explicit in his value of a good set list. “It’s a fine art” he told me, before insisting “There’s ways of mixing it up that keeps it interesting for me and for the band and for the people who come to more than one gig.” Using a tour as a testing ground for new material is always a tricky one for artists, and it’s no different here. There’s a bunch of new stuff on show, ranging from the frantic punk rock of ‘Out of Breath’ to a more melancholy tale of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in ‘Silent Key’, but for each of these he says, “We drop an old favourite immediately after”, and so they do. It’s a win win for everyone involved. Older, less sung songs such as ‘Rock & Roll Romance’ and ‘Fastest Way Back Home’ come and go during a short solo spell on stage, before The Sleeping Souls return, their matching white shirts now transparent with sweat, to bring us back to more rowdy proceedings with ‘Photosynthesis’ and ‘Plain Sailing Weather’ amongst others.
It’s the last few songs of the night however, that sum up Turner perfectly in his ability to play to any crowd. ‘Angel Islington’, a quiet, hopeful ballad from his upcoming album is the kind of song probably more easily played in a pub back room, as is he admits, the one that follows. It’s been a long time since he wrote ‘I Knew Prufock Before He Came Famous’, but as the audience roars it back line for line, it’s clearly taken on an anthemic sing-along feel to it that so many of his songs seem to. ‘I Still Believe’ came next, an intoxicating mix of rock & roll revelry complete with masked harmonica players, before the final song of the night, ‘Four Simple Words’ brought both the house and curtain down. As Turner strutted around the stage in the manner of Freddie Mercury and then hurled himself into the crowd, it was evident that he, and every single person in attendance, had had an absolute blast. Job done.
Photographs courtesy of Richard Etteridge Photography