22/11/11- Tom Gabel of Against Me! Photo by Jessica Austin- jessica-austin.blogspot.com
Underneath my nose, Frank Turner has turned into some kind of British institution, a troubadour for a disenfranchised generation, if you will. At the same time our man has planted one foot in the American punk scene , epitomised by the contemporary punk microcosm that is the org and riding the wave of former/current punk front men ditching their amps and going acoustic, a la Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music), Tim Barry (Avail) or Tony Sly (No Use For A Name). Mr Turner seems to be straddling two scenes, and the entire Atlantic Ocean…
The rabid fandom I experienced at the O2 was unexpected. Punk etiquette (oxymoron?) dictates that you do not wear the shirt of the band you are going to see, unless it is the only shirt you own. Its more of a stadium rock move to wear merch from previous tours, only relevant if you saw the Stones or Led Zep 40 years ago and yet you still rock, man! So, despite only being around in his current incarnation for six years Turner already inspires nostalgia amongst his fans, and nostalgia makes young people seem old…
Talking of premature aging, meet Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo, the first act of the evening. From the opening notes of the opening song I felt a sense of the wrong band at the wrong time. Acoustic and percussion-less (for the majority of the set), Barker and pals’ were evocative in the same sense as the clichéd emotions of telly advertising. A romantic picnic in a field with a chequered table cloth; one last glance at an empty room that contains many happy memories before moving house; horsing around on the prairie. Or, a lobster being lowered into a boiling pot and slowly cooked alive. I found myself wishing that Emily’s pretty, inoffensive voice sounded more like salad fingers. Man of the moment Frank Turner joined the band for the song ‘Fields Of June’ which can be downloaded here. Unfortunately there was no chemistry, the vocal harmonies weren’t strong, and it did little to alter the drowsy dynamic of the openers.
And so to the musical meat of the evening’s entertainment sandwich- Florida’s Against Me!. Vocalist Tom Gabel was not feeling particularly chatty, which was unfortunate considering his penchant for writing excellent anecdotal lyrics. The positive flipside to this was the sheer amount of material on show, ranging from the seminal Reinventing Axl Rose album to this years Russian Spies 7”.
The band segued from song to song, barely stopping for breath, Gabel thanking the other acts and the audience as he repeated the opening chord of ‘TSR’. New(ish) drummer Jay Weinberg ensured that everything was played at a blistering pace and was awarded a personal trophy by myself for being a human doppelganger of Animal from the Muppets. Anyone familiar with AM! will know what to expect musically; tightly played punk, sharp three-part harmonies, and sing alongs aplenty. In this respect AM! were aggressive and compelling, as always, but the lack of crowd interaction was disappointing. They deserve to be seen at their own headlining show.
I should make it clear at this point that I’m happy everyone else had a great time watching Frank Turner, but I just don’t get it… Strip away any dangerous element of the Dropkick Murphy’s, and mix with a politically impotent Levellers and you get Turner and his band. All I heard was polished folk-by-numbers, essentially pop music, which is not what I expected or like.
Maybe I’m sceptical because I recall Turner’s previous band, Million Dead, riding the coattails of At The Drive-In’s success by playing a watered-down version of a genuinely unique, engaging and original sound. Million Dead had a few good songs (see the slightly odd video above), as does Frank Turner, but the combination of the medium (riding the wave of a certain musical popularity) and the message (hey! We’re on stage but we’re just like you!) suggests that apparently I (the audience) don’t have an original thought in my head and that, if I were in a successful touring band, I would lower a disco ball and release loads of glittery c**p onto the fans at the climax of my set. Like I said, if you were there and you enjoyed it I’m happy for you, but what I heard was only a couple of degrees removed from Maroon 5 or some other generic pop.
For the first time in a long time, I don’t think my dislike of an artist is born from being too old, jaded or cynical: I simply find it hard to believe in Frank Turner as the new torchbearer for politicised folk music in the UK. The shoes he attempts to fill are too big and the music he plays not big enough. However, an O2 Arena packed to the rafters with singing fans indicates that I’m very much in the minority.