By Jeb Gavin
Earlier this week I went on what I thought was a relatively low key but promising first date. Towards the end of the date the young lady jokingly referred to me as possibly being a white, male Maya Angelou. At least, I’m pretty sure she was joking. Regardless, I went home, slept on it, and when I woke up I quickly tossed off what was either a loving homage or blasphemous parody to the recently departed writer. My date’s response seemed to be a hair towards positive, just past ambivalence- which I took as a good sign. Then again, you never really can tell when you’re scrambling to connect with another person through something as changeably exacting as words. It’s for this reason I find myself in awe of guys like Frank Turner, who tells a hell of a yarn even without a guitar in hand. His show this past Wednesday at the 9:30 Club was testament to the power of one man, gifted with eloquence, uniting a room full of people on an otherwise off night.
The night started off on the right foot with The Deadmen. They play this sort of sometimes sludgy/sometimes spacey southern rock. My previous experience seeing them was at the Rock and Roll Hotel, and the sound was cloistered in a way. With more space to work, their sound unfolds into this beautiful, Southern Gothic pastiche. They were a darker, seemingly more polished, and a solid counterpoint to headliner Turner’s amped up, folk-punk without becoming a childish parody of Southern rock (depressingly easy to do these days).
Speaking of Frank, I’d seen him play before as well, but I think the most memorable time was back when he opened for Lucero at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. The headliner was supposed to be Social Distortion, but illness forced a cancellation. Lucero and Turner decided to play the show for free and just have a good time. I recall quite clearly a drunk Frank Turner spotting my Hold Steady t-shirt after his set, coming up to me and insisting I look at his “Damn Right I’ll Rise Again” tattoo (on his lower back, of course.) It was a brief meeting, but the vim and verve with which he expounds both music and the unity offered therein was palpable. Just a handful of words were all it took to become good acquaintances, and make me a fan for life. If anything, Wednesday’s show simply cemented this image, particularly as he explained early on his two rules for the night (presuming there were rules): be nice to one another, and if you know the words sing along.
The idea of community and unity in music isn’t radical. In fact it should be fairly obvious- it’s the very basis of what we normally call a music scene. What always strikes me though is how effectively it seems to play out at Frank Turner shows, whereas for many bands it’s an affectation- unity only extends to people you deem worthy of your camaraderie (a prime example being DC locals The Deadmen opening the show.) How often have you found yourself at a favorite band’s show, standing behind people who appeared to only care about the latest single, bouncing around as though they were superfans? Did it anger you? Did you want to call them posers? Sneer and nod to the old punks as if to say, “These damn kids, they’re not real fans”? I call shenanigans. And apparently so does the majority of Turner’s audience- at least the folks at the sold-out show at 9:30.
Liking something isn’t a matter of any outside opinion- particularly when it comes to something like words. Nothing external can force you to connect with a line in a poem or song. When a room full of people is in a single voice screaming, “Give me one fine day of plain sailing weather,” there’s no calculating who feels that line deepest or who identifies with it and who just likes the way the phrase feels coming out of their mouth. Perhaps it’s Turner himself or perhaps it’s just the audience he attracts, but I didn’t notice any sideways glances around the room; there’s just people happily reveling in his music and words.
Even now, I’m thinking of doing it, trying to quantify the uniquity of English folk-punk. I have no doubt the man’s turn of a phrase sets him apart from the wave of neo-skiffle English boys with banjos, or “worse”- this new, ubiquitous strain of pop British folk currently dabbling with synthesizers. But I shouldn’t care. None of it affects me. Turner’s words bind me to a group of people in a way simultaneously comforting and inescapable. I can all but guarantee there were people in the audience who’d never been to the club Wednesday night, folks who’d never met Josh Burdette before. But I’d also be willing to guarantee there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Turner recorded his elegy to Burdette live on stage at the start of his encore. The right words don’t just make a world of difference. The right words can make a world. Frank Turner has the right words.