Friday, 4 December 2015

Gig Review: Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls at Alexandra Palace 26/11/15 (by Emma Prew)

Before I dive into my review I should probably point out that I am a massive fan of Frank Turner, so a review of his Alexandra Palace show could perhaps be a little biased. I’ve seen Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls 13 times now (well, once was Frank solo) and, honestly, I would happily see him 10, 20, 30 times more! I’ve been lucky enough to see him in variety of locations and venue sizes, including a tiny dive bar in Berlin, his first festival headline spot at 2000 Trees, the iconic Wembley show in 2012 and the Garage show earlier this year for his new album release show. Wembley was massive, both for Frank in his career and in venue capacity – holding 12,000 people – and Alexandra Palace is almost as big, capacity-wise. It’s easy to be one those ‘I like it better when he plays small venues’ fans (and honestly I do) but, even so, I was super excited for the Ally Pally show, particularly because the two supports were favourites of mine and also because it was my first Frank Turner show with Colin.

Doors were much earlier than we are used to, at 6.30pm, but luckily we both had the day off – 6.30 is the time I usually get into London if I go to a show after work! We headed over to Alexandra Palace, in north London, with plenty of time to spare, walked the 10 minutes from the station up the hill and joined the queue. Has Colin mentioned he hates queuing for shows? Well, he does. I’m not a big fan either, especially in chilly November, but I was keen to get into the venue early to get a good spot and be ready for Will Varley, the first artist on the bill, at 7.20pm. We were by no means near the front of the queue but when we did get inside the venue we were able to wander over to a spot that I deemed a suitable closeness to the stage. I always think it’ll be difficult to get anywhere near to the front at large venues but for some reason it wasn’t a problem. Perhaps most people were more concerned about getting their drinks in! We had to wait a little while for the show to start but the good folk at Xtra Mile had a little artist showreel playing on the screens either side of the stage featuring artists such as Against Me!, Beans on Toast, PJ Bond, Rob Lynch and the UK tour’s two support acts – Will Varley and Skinny Lister. Xtra Mile, tied with Exeter-based Specialist Subject, is probably my favourite UK record label and I love that the artists on the label often play alongside each other.

Will Varley soon took to the stage with his acoustic guitar in hand. I’ve seen Will twice before but both times at much, much smaller venues. Although he also played with Frank at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year – when he had, just that day, been signed to Xtra Mile. He said himself that Alexandra Palace was the biggest show he had ever played and perhaps ever would play. Despite the overwhelming size of the audience, Will launched into his set with the catchy Advert Soundtrack and soon had everyone captivated. The musical side of Will’s songs is relatively simple – he pointed out that he borrowed the chord sequence in one of his songs from Johnny Cash – but the lyrics are often witty and almost always highly amusing. Within no time he had Ally Pally laughing to his anecdotes between songs, as well as the actual songs themselves. One of my favourites, the Talking Cat Blues, tells the tale of a man whose girlfriend leaves him because he’s lazy and doesn’t have a job, but he finds fame by filming his cat and putting it on YouTube (an amusing cat filled video of said song can be seen here). I think I can speak for everyone, old fans and new, when I say that Will did an excellent job of opening the show. He’s returning to London in March to play a headline show at the wonderful Scala and I will certainly be in attendance.

Will Varley was great but I was really, really looking forward to seeing the next act – Skinny Lister. As with Will, I have seen Skinny Lister twice before and I would genuinely say that they are one of the best live acts I’ve seen this year, maybe even ever. Before the band appeared on stage, I heard a guy behind me say to his (girl)friend that Skinny Lister were ‘like the Pogues, you know Fairytale of New York?’. I love The Pogues but I wouldn’t say that that musical comparison is quite true. Yes Skinny Lister play a kind of punky folk music but it’s far more traditional English sea shanty-inspired than Irish folk music. Plus the singer (or singers) isn’t an idiot like Shane MacGowan! The six-piece opened their set with Raise A Wreck, the first song on their latest album, Down On Deptford Broadway, which really is a great album and set opener. They then continued with a combination of fast, lively danceable songs – my favourite – and a couple of more slow-paced ones as well.

I loved every second of Skinny Lister’s set and had a great time dancing and singing along. A handful of people around me clearly knew the band and were enjoying it too but I feel like most people didn’t really know what to think. It’s such a shame that most people wouldn’t have taken the time to check out the support bands first. For me, and I know for Colin too, a gig isn’t usually just about the headlining act. I suppose we’re a bit spoilt as punk rock fans, in that most bands play with other bands that we know and love. It was clear to us that most of Frank Turner’s fans are not necessarily our normal punk crowd. His fans are clearly very varied, which can be good but it can also be bad – more on that later. Oh and Michael Camino, double bassist of Skinny Lister, did his classic move of crowd surfing with his double bass. This is something I’ve witnessed before, and in a much smaller not to mention lower ceiling-ed room, but I imagine must have seemed a bit crazy for some!

After warming up my dancing shoes with Skinny Lister I was even more excited for Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. I’d spoken to a friend who attended the Southampton date earlier in the tour and he told me that I’d love the set list, as they played all ‘the fast-paced hits’. When the band burst into their set with Get Better, from this year’s Positive Songs For Negative People, and the crowd went crazy (rightly so), I knew we were in for a treat. I’m not really one for fancy lights and lasers at gigs – it’s all about the music, right? – but the positive/negative light-up cubes were pretty neat and not overly distracting. I also prefer to watch the band on the actual stage rather than on screens either side of the stage and thankfully I had a decent enough view to do so! Neither of us had been to Ally Pally before but, despite the distance from the station, I would definitely rate it highly – as larger venues go anyway. The sound quality seemed good to me and the stage was high enough up that even a short-arse like me had no difficulty being able to see what was going on. The venue holds the largest standing capacity in London and why wouldn’t you want to stand up for a Frank Turner show anyway?

The first part of their set consisted of mostly songs from the last couple of albums: If Ever I Stray, Losing Days, One Foot Before the Other, Out of Breath etc. but there were also a couple of classics like Long Live The Queen, thrown in there for us long-time fans. After about an hour of energetic songs with the Sleeping Souls (and an electric guitar – something Frank only started using with the last album), he was left alone with an acoustic guitar to play a few songs solo. He started with The Ballad Of Me And My Friends – a song that anyone who attended the Wembley show in 2012 will know is supposed to be in retirement! What happened after that is one of the most special and heartbreaking moments I’ve ever witnessed at live show. Frank took some time to say a few words about the Paris attacks and his friend Nick who died in the Bataclan. He also said that sometimes the meanings of his songs change over time and proceeded to play a stripped back, slowed down version of Demons. The song includes the lines ‘At this truth we have arrived, God damn it's great to be alive.’ and You won't get everything you wanted, But you will never be defeated.’ Frank half-jokingly suggested that we all turn on our phone lights and raise them up high, but I don’t think he quite envisaged just what it would look like. Ben Morse captured the moment perfectly in this photo, as the whole room was lit with tiny lights.

Credit definitely goes to Ben Morse here and not me!

The Sleeping Souls returned to the stage and they ploughed through more hits, including; Wessex Boy (or Essex Boy, as Colin likes to refer to it as), Photosynthesis (including the whole crouching down on the floor and jumping up at ‘I won’t sit down…’ thing), Reason Not To Be An Idiot, Mittens and Recovery. Everyone was singing along and there was a lot of dancing and jumping around too, of course. For the most part, Frank Turner certainly doesn’t play music to stand still to. Something worth pointing out, although I’m not too pleased to admit it, quite a few Frank Turner fans don’t seem to be as courteous as the average punk fan. At one point Colin got elbowed in the face and I’m not talking mosh pit-style, just someone throwing their arms around without considering the rest of us at the gig. It didn’t completely ruin the gig for me but things like that just remind me why I love the punk rock shows in grubby little Camden bars so much – the atmosphere is quite different.

When the band went off stage after The Next Storm, we moved closer to the exit ready to make a quick (or as quick as possible) get away, as Colin was heading to Scotland bright and early the next day. We found that actually the view was still pretty good from there and when the guys returned to the stage to play their encore we had plenty of room to move about to the final songs. If you’ve ever been to a Frank Turner show in the last few years then you’ll know that the final song is almost always Four Simple Words. I want to dance, I want to dance I want lust and love and a smattering of romance. But I'm no good at dancing, yet I have to do something. Tonight I'm going to play it straight, I'm going to take my chance, I want to dance.– which is exactly what we did.

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