Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls close out two-year tour in Pittsburgh
The black backdrop that has hung from the stage during most of Frank Turner’s performances this year simply and perfectly encapsulated the artist and his backing band. Emblazoned with what has become a trademark symbol for the rock and roll singer-songwriter, taken from his days as a hardcore punk, is the letter X, each section punctuated with an initial: FTHC. The words surrounding the X proclaim “Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Always On Tour.” While that might sound like a bit of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it really isn’t much of a stretch for what is arguably one of the hardest working bands in the industry. Turner has accumulated over two-thousand shows (2,116, by his count) in the thirteen years since he left the punk scene and struck out as a folk rock musician.
That Frank Turner Hardcore banner had become a familiar sight at his concerts, but on the night of October 1st, it was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it’s because the stage at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale, PA, was too small to accommodate it; perhaps it’s because the audience needed no introduction to the musicians they were about to see. That sold-out show would be the last in the touring cycle for Positive Songs for Negative People, Turner’s most recent studio album, which was released in August of 2015 and for which the band would play four hundred and eleven shows over a twenty-six month span. Always on tour, indeed. Appropriately enough, the cycle ended where it started, at that tiny converted church in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Knowing the sort of grueling schedule they had maintained for so long, one might have expected the band to stagger across the finish line like exhausted survivors of some harrowing ordeal. With only the briefest break after their circuit of European festivals this summer, they flew to the U.S. to spend the month of September touring with alt-country powerhouse Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. But to assume that they would give anything less than their best for that final show would be to essentially admit that one does not know Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. They pour every ounce of themselves into their performances, whether it’s the first night of the tour or the last, and that night was no exception.
The house lights went down, thunderous applause filled the room, and Turner and the Souls stormed the stage, launching into the anthemic “Get Better,” a standout track from Positive Songs. They sustained that same ferocious vitality for nearly two hours, finishing one song and beginning the next with hardly a moment to breathe. Turner is a force of nature, a screaming, swearing mass of punk rock energy, charisma dripping from him like the sweat from his brow, and his backing band, whose members include Nigel Powell on drums, Ben Lloyd on guitar, Matt Nasir on keys, and Tarrant Anderson on bass, are more than a match for him, each of them just as riveting to watch in their own ways. They maintained that frenetic pace until midway through the show, when Turner slowed things down with a solo acoustic set, before returning for another hour of circle pits, walls of hugs (as opposed to walls of death), and crowdsurfing.
The night was a celebration of music from all parts of Turner’s career, where songs like “Father’s Day”, from his ten-year-old first LP Sleep is for the Week, blended seamlessly with show staples like “Long Live the Queen” and “Four Simple Words,” and cuts that are rarely played live, like the full-band version of “Redemption.” The audience was also treated to tracks from his yet-to-be-released new album. Protest song “The Sand in the Gears” made its official debut in January, but “Be More Kind,” a soft plea to do just as the title suggests, and “1933,” a blistering rock song with a goosebump-inducing bassline, were unleashed on the public fairly recently, bringing with themthe promise of an exciting new direction for Turner’s music.
The evening also had its share of special moments. Turner deviated from the script during his solo set when he spotted a friend in the crowd, a fellow known to the FTHC community as Harmonica Phil, who had joined Turner on stage at previous shows to play – you guessed it – the harmonica. Turner called Harmonica Phil up yet again and they covered Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” complete with half-forgotten lyrics, ad-libs, and lots of laughter from both the performers and the audience. Not long after, Turner stopped the proceedings again to announce that it was drummer Powell’s birthday and that he, Powell, would have to crowdsurf to the back of the room to retrieve his cake while Turner himself sat in on drums. Once the rather disheveled Powell returned to the stage (with a surprisingly intact cake), Turner led the room in singing “Happy Birthday.” The singalongs would continue for most of the night (after all, Turner’s two rules, which he explains at the beginning of every show, are to take care of each other and to sing if you know the words), but at no point was it more stirring or emotional than during “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” with its plaintive exhortations to love and live.
It’s easy to play a good show. But there’s a particular alchemy, a combining of certain intangible elements, which must occur for the night to become truly magical. This was one of those nights. The atmosphere was one of joyful camaraderie, of everyone in the room being in communion as a part of something bigger and greater than themselves. The reciprocity of energy between the band and the audience was remarkable –they each gave as much as they possibly could to the other. Numerous fans, many of whom had seen the band repeatedly through the years, left that night, sweaty and elated, saying that Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls had never been better; still more were lamenting the fact that Turner and the Souls wouldn’t return to the States until after the new album was finished. But if there's one thing that can be counted on, it's that the band that is "always on tour" will be back sooner rather than later. And when they return, we can rest assured it will be with a collection of new material that will become just as iconic & relevant as that which preceded it.
Coverage by Colleen Martin & Rich Russo RP Russo Photography
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