I had been looking forward to seeing Frank Turner for several months in the week that his seventh album, Be More Kind, was due for release. A diverse group of people amongst the Punks, Skins and Journeymen flooded into the Cambridge Corn Exchange. One excited group were those heading for the boxes, people with learning disabilities who had free tickets from Frank Turner, because of his support for the Stay Up Late charity.
The venue itself was originally built in 1873 and is an impressive example of Victorian architecture with a rich history from hosting the first Motor Show in 1898, to the last public appearance of Syd Barrett in 1972.
Half an hour after doors opened, a geeky looking guy in a garish Hawaiian shirt appeared on stage performing some questionable karate kicks. He picked up an acoustic guitar and announced “Hi I’m Derek from Pittsburgh and this is a protest song”. Armed with a beaten up acoustic guitar, a quirky voice and a lot of humour, he then proceeded to sing songs for the misfits, weirdos and geeks. It turned out that every song was a protest song. Derek Zanetti, AKA Homeless Gospel Choir is well worth catching if you can.
Zanetti bowed out with a song called Normal for which he was joined on stage by Canadian rock outfit Arkells, the night’s second support act. After that song the stage was plunged into darkness, the only thing visible was a lit sign proclaiming Arkells Touring Band. Max Kerman, Arkells frontman, declared that they were going to “try our hardest for you” and invited an audience member on stage to play with them.
It was clear that Arkells, like the previous act and indeed Frank Turner, were not fans of their neighbouring country’s President saying “He was born on third base, go home and Google it”. Their set ended as it began with Homeless Gospel Choir returning to the stage with them. Arkells will be touring the UK in the Autumn and I for one will be trying to see them again.
By now the floor was jam packed and the atmosphere sultry thanks to The Victorians for not being too renowned for their consideration of air conditioning when designing buildings!
Then the lights went down, the screens went blank and The Sleeping Souls took to the stage. Frank Turner joined them, dressed in his customary skinny jeans, white shirt and black pencil tie. He was ready for show number 2,162. Holding a red acoustic guitar and with his back to the audience he started furiously strumming and 1933 kicked off the 25-song set. The Cambridge crowd joined in singing “we’re not dead yet” as the band played Get Better with Frank yelling “Are you on my side?”.
The simple white lighting shifted to red and gold, diffused by smoke and the tempo slowed just a notch as the unmistakable opening bars of The Next Storm started. Three songs in and the rules were explained – Rule 1: Don’t be an arsehole, Rule 2: If you know the words you have got to sing!
Turner sang a further twelve numbers taken from across his studio albums with The Sleeping Souls working tirelessly alongside. The repertoire varied from the new and funky, Make America Great Again, taken from Be More Kind, to the classic Reasons Not To Be An Idiot from Love, Ire and Song. At the end of Make America Great Again, he mused “Call me an old hippy, but I think racists should be ashamed of themselves, wherever they are” a sentiment shared across the cavernous Victorian building. The assembled masses obeyed both rules and sung along, almost as one throughout, and continued right up to song number 25.
The last of the twelve songs was Glorious You, which the 36-year-old explained had been written for his cousin who had had a tough year. This was the more soulful Songbook rendition which Frank sang beautifully and the audience fell silent for. Knowing the background of the song made it all the more personal.
Following a brief darkness, Frank Turner was centre-stage, alone with only his red acoustic guitar and just under 1,900 people in front of him for company. One of these people was at her 50th show and had a request which she deserved to have granted as Frank played Pass It Along, one of his rarer songs.
In what was a very connected and personal show Turner told us that his girlfriend was present and that he had written a song about her as she slept. Bathed in simple blue light, he sang There She Is full of emotion to her. The throng silently watched him serenade her, in awe. To change the mood a little he then performed the oldest song of the night, the brilliant Ballad Of My Friends with more than a little help from the now rested onlookers.
The Sleeping Souls joined him back on stage for another three numbers. First Blackout and then Out Of Breath, where he whipped those on the floor into a frenzy telling them to create a circle in the middle. This resulted in a heaving mass of rotation and jumping, like some giant plughole draining people. Finally the crowd-pleaser Photosynthesis was aired, the entire audience defiantly refusing to sit down, shut up, or grow up!
It had been a monumental night, but the encore was still to come. The mass karaoke continued with Love, Ire And Song and I Still Believe. Turner then crowd-surfed to Four Little Words, demanded a circle be cleared, walked through the crowd to the middle of the floor, danced with a female fan, after reminding her that he was taken before crowd-surfing back to the stage.
The final song, the Songbook version of Polaroid Picture, was poignant and gloriously sentimental. Six spotlights lit the band and six more lit the 1,900 impromptu backing singers as everyone gently sung the song’s climax lyrics over and over. I suspect everyone was thinking of someone close to them as those words echoed around.
Show 2,162 re-affirmed that Frank Turner’s honest and personal lyrics combined with his authenticity make him one of the leading storytellers of his generation. He is not just a Punk-Folk artist but has crossed boundaries both musically and demographically. The back stories he tells during his live shows, including the fact that his Nan – Peggy of Peggy Sang The Blues fame – gave him his first taste of whiskey, demonstrate that there is a bit of him in every song, and most fans of Frank Turner can relate to that. He contemplated that there were nearly 2,000 in the Cambridge Corn Exchange, who all treated each other as equals, 2,000 strangers just sharing the experience of a rock ‘n’ roll Show. He challenged everyone to go out the following day and interact with people in the same way. Perhaps we should all try to Be More Kind.
Live Music Review by Tony Creek and Photography by Paul Lyme of Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 30th April 2018