June 1996 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ The Borderline, Soho, London, 1st June (“bursting at the seams with music”)

4 Jun

From the moment he first strides gawkily on stage, grinning from ear to ear, Francis Dunnery radiates joyful energy. On last year’s low-profile British acoustic tours he was cautiously sticking his head up over the parapet to find out, to his surprise and delight, that he hadn’t been forgotten. This year it’s different. Perhaps it’s the success he’s finally been garnering in other corners of the world, or perhaps the reasons are closer to the heart, but Frank’s gotten a second wind and new fire. With a vengeance.

There’s less of the jokes this time around. Now, he’s bursting at the seams with music, so much that there’s less time for chat. As before, he’s armed with just an acoustic guitar (plus a cheap fuzzbox for those moments when only a dirty burst of distortion will do) but he makes both of them deliver as much as any full band would as he blasts straight into the positivity avalanche of I Believe I Can Change My World to kick off an evening drawing mostly from the new ‘Tall Blonde Helicopter’ album, his simplest and most joyous work to date.

Although he’s started playing fluent solos again – with a newly haphazard glee – the irrepressible energy with which he once drove It Bites is now harnessed to less cosmic, more essential ends and powered by faith rather than amplifier wattage. So are the songs. The raucous, overdriven joy-and-salvation of The Way Things Are; Grateful and Thankful’s humble confessional folk; the breezy Latin-flavoured pop of Rain or Shine; and the brand new Crazy Little Heart of Mine which has everyone yelping along to the scatting chorus like a pack of blissed-out Muppets.

True, there’s one moment of comparative darkness: Frank’s raw, stormy lament for his father, Feel Like Kissing You Again. As he dives into a wrenching, angry acoustic solo, shredding savagely at his own technique, he parades through trademark Dunnery riffs and those infamous looping fretboard licks, but now with a scalding discontent. It’s as if he’s saying “all of this skill… but still I couldn’t do anything to save him.” For a moment, some of the old pain comes through, and I find myself holding my breath…

For the most part, though, the concert is given over to the positivity spilling from Frank’s mouth in the “universal laws” which he’s declaiming from the stage – part Californian New Age-ery, but several more parts blunt northern-English honesty. Somehow he manages to restore faith in those old positive-thinking clichés; perhaps this is because, in this little subterranean music club, they don’t come across as corny arena-rock “put-cha-hands-tu-getha” sentiment, but as the testament of a man who’s won the war against his own dark side, making the pinwheeling, euphoric In My Dreams and the fragile unconditional devotion of Sunshine ring all the truer.

But it’s not just the smaller venues that are making Dunnery shows more intimate. It’s three-hundred-odd people packing the floor and clogging the stairs, still singing along to the anthemic moments like Everyone’s a Star and Still Too Young to Remember… but as if they were at a front-room party rather than a football stadium. It’s smaller things, like people filling in missing vocal harmonies. Or Frank extending his guitar audience-ward to let a fan strum a final chord; asking our opinion on a new riff; or bringing a child onstage (his nephew Charlie) to help out with singing Little Snake. It’s the wistful generosity of Good Life. It’s the people who, to Frank’s astonishment, already know the brand-new single B-side Just a Man and can sing along with its family-of-man message, joining him in flicking the finger at the bigots.

Most of all, though, it’s the new feeling that Francis Dunnery exudes: the feeling that he and all of us no longer have to be imprisoned in guilt and sin, that we can all be forgiven. Homegrown has somehow lost its sourness and emphasises freedom. He delivers the sly have-your-cake-and-eat-it self-portrait of The Johnny Podell Song with such a disarming mix of laddish swagger and rueful self-awareness that its roguishness is more irresistible, more forgivable then before. Conversely, its savagely witty and acerbic flipside Too Much Saturn is played much more gently than expected.

Perhaps it’s this same sense of redemption which induces Frank to perform a sparkling, beautifully appropriate cover of Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill – one of the several moments tonight that suggests a rapprochement with his proggie days. More It Bites material is being woven back into his setlist, too. Here’s a snatch of the old Tapboard extravaganza Reprise popping up in American Life in the Summertime; there’s a brief snippet of I’ll Meet You in the Spring sneaking into Still Too Young to Remember. More obvious and touching is a complete version of the acoustic version of Yellow Christian, which surfaced on a couple of dates last year; although the biggest surprise of the evening is Frank’s brief resurrection, out of the blue, of Once Around the World. Even if, in the end, he goes no further than the pastoral intro… to gleeful yells of “chicken!” from an audience that still remembers all the words. He grins. No problem – it’s all his music now, and if it feels right, why not play it?

And it does feel right. Francis Dunnery’s stubborn sticking to his guns, through right and wrong, is finally beginning to pay off both inside and out. He’s practically glowing up there. “Absolutely fuckin’ refuse to go under,” he exhorts from the stage, “and you can do absolutely anything you want to.” Another simple message. And – tonight at least – worth much more than a fifteen-minute suite.

Francis Dunnery online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

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