Looking out on the biggest audience of your touring life to date as the opening act must be a scary prospect, but if Wilswood Bouys, an acoustic duo from Essex, had any nerves, they weren’t on display. And so the already growing audience was treated to a short, sharp and shockingly good set of intricate acoustica and snappy songs. Both sang and layered their guitar lines around, through, over, and under each other with grace and groove. Country vibes mixed with more home-spun folky drives to significant effect. If we have had to put up with such generic labels as British Americana, perhaps they are the start of a movement hitherto known as Red, White and Bluegrass. Just a thought. A great start to the evening.
And if they were starting on the road to bigger things, The Lottery Winners are undoubtedly a long way down that road. The first thing that strikes you about this band is their stage presence; frontman Thom Rylance is an absolute star, part musician, part stand-up comedian, someone who knows how to whip up the crowd even before they have launched into their set. And their set is phenomenal—the right blend of pop infectiousness and heavy indie deliveries, of anthemic sing-alongs and deft songwriting. One listens to songs such as Much Better, Start Again or the fun and funky Sunshine, and you can see stadium stardom just around the corner.
This is pop as it should have been, but which never was. It is pop, having found itself going down a different leg of the trousers of time. Pop that puts all other pop to shame. Pop that doesn’t know or consider itself pop. Pop that out, pops pop. Pop with poise and purpose. Pop with a PhD!
When you go to a Frank Turner show, you can encounter any number of Franks. There is the warm-hearted protest singer and the incendiary punk rocker. There is the fired-up folky and purveyor of pathos-laced torch songs: the jobbing musician and the rock star. Tonight we got it all.
Coming off the back of his heaviest album for a while, Frank Turner Hardcore geared the set more to the more raw end of his inclinations, a night of, by and large, fast and furious, frantic and fun renditions of his songs, some of which haven’t been aired for a while. And from the opener, the audience was on his side and up for the occasion, but then the loyalty he instils means this is always the case.
The classics are all there, The Road is a fist-in-the-air ode to wanderlust, Wessex Boy is an anthem about heart and home, and I Still Believe is a rabble-rousing riot of a song fire up with optimism and vision.
The band, The Sleeping Souls, is a road-honed and unbreakable machine, constant sidekick, Dive Dive stalwart, guitarist and mandolin player Ben Lloyd looking not unlike Barney Sumner (though I was a fair way away, to be honest) and throwing himself into the role with equal energy and bassist Tarrant Anderson as solid and dexterous bassist as any band could wish for. Matt Nasir, also to be found inside project Möngöl Hörde, a band showing scant regard for the plight of the humble umlaut, added the keyboards’ wash and wave, ebb and flow, and also played the mandolin on the intro that Turner “still hadn’t got around to learning.” And “newbie” Calum Green was as dynamic and deft behind the kit as when I first encountered him with Echo Boom Generation all those years ago.
But the overall vibe of the show, one that Frank Turner pointed out poignantly, was that, after lockdowns and enforced isolation, cancelled gigs and a lack of social lives, the live gig was back. We have all missed this, and fingers crossed, this small slice of normality – this strange ritual, this coming together of like-minded souls, this shamanic celebration of creativity, togetherness, empathy and enjoyment – is back.
On the strength of last night, it felt like it had never been away.