January 1995 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ Jongleurs, Camden Town, London, 26th January (“a fair dose of confessional, thankfully laced with warm, wry humour”)

28 Jan

“My name is Francis, and I’m an alcoholic.”

The former frontman of It Bites stands before a packed house, nervous and naked. In musical and personal terms, at least – this is a stripped-down gig, just Francis Dunnery and accomplice Ashley Reaks on acoustic guitars in an ‘Unplugged’-style attempt to relaunch Dunnery in the UK after a four-year absence. It’s also an opportunity for Dunnery, without the constraints or comforts of a band, to confront his British audience with utter honesty about who he is.

We get his new songs, but we also get a fair dose of confessional, thankfully laced with warm, wry humour. At times, the atmosphere is like that of a stand-up comedy performance; Dunnery regaling a warm, welcoming and adoring audience with tales of his drunken days, the horrors of becoming one of the “rock arseholes” whom he detests, the pros and cons of sobriety and how it relates to the choosing of curtains, and the ups and downs of romance. (He also claims, implausibly, to have a werewolf’s cock, but probably the less said about that the better…)

So he’s back. It’s an intimate homecoming, really, with none of the posturing one associates with a rock gig. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone opening their show, as Dunnery does, by making a cup of tea? Then again, he never had the self-importance of the average proggie, even when he was twisting out great looping spirals of glossy pin-sharp progressive pop with It Bites in their heyday; and when he seemed to be trying to reconcile his own friendly Cumbrian bluntness and plainspeaking with the musical tightrope act he was pursuing at that time. The present-day Dunnery is a troubadour, a man who’s returned to the basic portable song that can still enchant even when cut down to the most skeletal arrangements.

He’s older, wiser and a touch more cynical (as evidenced on the wry precis of the music industry that is American Life in the Summertime, blessed with a compulsive tune plus satirical lyrics about the Californian stardom dream, and dedicated tonight to the record company girls), but his sense of compassion and honesty sees him through. Much of tonight’s set comes from his recent second solo album ‘Fearless’, in which he moves into smooth (but indisputably off-beat) pop-rock, much of which is quite suited to tonight’s format. The beautifully poignant Good Life, executed solo, is a perfect goodbye song. Painful, celebratory, tantalisingly unresolved, and making the most of Dunnery’s high soul-grained vocal tone, it gets one of the biggest cheers of the night, leaves wistful echoes in the heart, and ranks with the best of any of his past work.

Recent, neglected single What’s He Gonna Say certainly gains added sleepy poignance of its own by being stripped down. It’s spoilt, however, by Dunnery throwing in a twiddly accelerating solo line in an inappropriate bit of technical flash: a rare lapse of taste meaningless to the song and to the evening. Fade Away and Heartache Reborn fare better; sad in a joyous kind of way, filled with rue, warmth and self-realisation, little chronicles of the interweaving of life and love.

A superb electric player, Frank has yet to find his own voice on acoustic guitar. He solos throughout the evening in a bizarre, terse, hybrid style of blues and Spanish classical with a heavy attack. Sometimes the results are striking, occasionally they’re just pointless. But then, he has recently reinvented himself from being a guitar hero who sings to a singer who plays guitar. On this tour, his songs mean infinitely more than his guitar playing.

The mournfully jaunty Homegrown and the resurrected It Bites strutter Underneath Your Pillow both work surprisingly well, surviving the loss of their skilful arrangements on record and given a more intimate tinge by the simple interplay of guitars. Feel Like Kissing You Again, now revealed as a tribute to Dunnery’s late father, is a vertiginous blanket of strumming; unsettling and bleak, Frank delivering a heartfelt, keening vocal and pulling off a harsh, minimal and twangingly abstract solo with impossible note-bends shooting off like snapping heartstrings.

To close, there are a few more lookbacks at It Bites. A quick nugget of the acoustic flourish The Big Lad in the Windmill, and a final acoustic benediction of wonky-lyric’d rock ballad Still Too Young to Remember (roared back at him by a clubful of joyous voices); and then Dunnery’s gone. No encores, despite the roaringly enthusiastic calls that carry on long after the club plays loud funk music at us in an effort to cue us into getting the hell out of there. Still, we can but hope that we won’t have to wait four years until the next gig. And we can marvel at the fact that even when all of the gloriously flashy musical settings of the It Bites era are removed, we’re still left with a fine songwriter.

Welcome back, Mr Dunnery. We missed you, fella.

Francis Dunnery online:
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