2009 SXSW Frank Turner Review
By Nina Chiminec
Buried amongst the names of over one thousand bands at the South by Southwest Music Conference, it takes something special to make your way onto someone’s schedule three times in two days. With eyes glazed over, I finished going through the entire list of artists playing the festival this year, and starred the shows that were a priority to me. My coworkers laughed as they asked “Who is this Frank Turner guy, and why is he on your list THREE times?” I explained that I’d be happy to make it to one of the shows and I didn’t realistically think I’d catch more than that. To my surprise, the only thing that I needed after my 4:00am wake up call to the airport on Thursday was a cold beer and some Texas sunshine. By the afternoon I was heading toward the power center of the festival, Sixth Street, and I had one artist on my mind. While standing at the door of The Wave, going through all the routine verifications needed to enter an Austin bar, I heard Frank right above me on the rooftop stage. How appropriate that the words I could hear while waiting at the door downstairs were “always on the guestlist, but always stuck in traffic”. Finally I got through the door and I was already able to check my championed artist off my list for that year
The one other time I saw Frank Turner before this moment was unintentional, and it was months prior. Some artists hook you in with their voice, some with their playing, but this English boy captures his audience with his soul. Yes, I’m fully aware of how cheesy that sounds, but I’m easily influenced by inspiration, and he had me hooked from song one. Fast forward half a year and half a country; I’m reunited with the songs that I listened to so much that I had to put myself on probation in order to not get too sick of. Unlike the acoustic set on the Revival Tour, this time around Frank was joined by a band which he admittedly only met that morning. Obviously very professional musicians, they seemed to have a good time playing familiar songs and let Frank rest easy while he captured every last sardine on that rooftop. Without much need to chat between songs, Frank shared the stories of his life with each song he sang. We learned of the death of a dear friend in “Long Live the Queen” that would tear anyone’s heart out if it wasn’t coupled with an uplifting musical overtone. He reminisces about old friends, plans for revolutions, and lost passions, without sounding defeated. If anything, he was singing his heart out as if to beg us to live our lives, and to remind us that “life is about love, lost minutes, and lost evenings, about fire in our bellies and about furtive little feelings”. It’s clear that Frank’s lyrics are more like real-time thoughts and experiences, than a process where he sits down and has to think of things to say. And maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in the desire to be inspired like that sometimes. So much in fact, that after dinner that evening two more of my friends were intrigued enough to see him. So off to show #2.
It must have been the lighting at Latitude 30 because Frank eerily resembled a young Bruce Springsteen as he took the stage. Being from New Jersey, my small entourage of inherent Springsteen fans nodded in approval when he first opened up and shared his life with us. I was slightly disappointed at first by the similarity of the day’s two set lists, but with his inexhaustible energy, his presence just never gets weary. When he stops singing his songs as if he got his heart broken last night and just wrote a song about it this morning, then maybe I’ll stop listening to them like it’s my first time. He also completely redeemed himself by debuting a newly written song, which in my opinion paid homage to the style of Billy Bragg even more so than his other songs. The gist of the song was that there is nothing special or different about musicians and famous people; in the end, we’re all the same. As if we didn’t think you were humble enough, Frank Turner. Making jokes about his almost-white jeans, he neared the end of his set with a cover of The Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, convincing the audience that if they weren’t familiar with the song, well then they’re just not Indie Rock. The thing about these down-to-earth artists with their hearts stitched on their sleeves is that they make you really want to just sit down and have a beer with them. So with my ego waiting in the crowd, I approached him, as nothing but a fan, to buy him a beer at the bar. At this point I would have thought I’d already be on overload, but when his group invited me to accompany them to another show down the road (which somehow I hadn’t even heard about), I nodded yes, waved goodbye to my friends, and headed into the night.
I don’t think that Frank’s 11:00 show at the intimate hole-in-the-wall bar, Plush, was part of the official music conference, but that provided a more suitable vibe. As we entered, the room was dark and crowded with its attention on Jonah Matranga from the band Far. Not even one Shinerbock later, I was sitting on a tall stack of cinderblocks behind the stage watching Frank play his first acoustic show of the day. In this environment, you can see how Frank’s musical background is rooted in punk and hardcore. He thrives off of the energy and intimacy of his audience standing feet away from him, with only his own height to separate him from the crowd. Even with the heaviest genre influencing his music being folk, that passion and anxt in his songs were clearly not inspired by country sunshine. Now, I can’t say that I have a slew of friends that reside in London, but I’m confident to say that there are few people more proud to be from there than Frank. Not surprisingly, his songs greatly reflect the roots of his country, and his own personal life story growing up there. His songs may not dwell solely on politics and revolution, but five minutes into a conversation with him, this profoundly intelligent person didn’t need to tell me that he had a history degree. Charming and smart. With a third, slightly more sweaty, but ever-powerful Frank Turner show under my belt, we watched half of a Lucero set at Dirty Dog Saloon, and called it an early night (which in Austin just means slightly before last call).
Anyone that has made the pilgrimage to SXSW before has probably noticed the pattern that takes place. Most people get in and relax on Wednesday, Thursday is a party day, Friday is a recovery day, and Saturday is the last hurrah. As it happened, Friday was indeed a bit hazy (looking back it was probably attributed to the whiskey breakfast more so than the lack of sleep). I hadn’t planned to go to another Frank Turner show that weekend, but without realizing it, I had managed to spread the word about my talented new English friend to an even larger group of co-workers and friends by the time his show came around on Friday night, so there I was again. This fourth and final show was at a little bar called Friends, which proved to be very appropriate for Frank. Upon entering the packed little room, I was completely intrigued by a really funny musician standing on a chair on the stage. Not realizing any sort of connection, Frank asked if I knew the song of his “I Knew Prufrock Before he Got Famous”, one of my favorites, which I composedly confirmed that I did. The next few minutes were like seeing a book you’ve read 100 times come to life. He pointed to the man on the stage, his friend Jay from Beans on Toast, and explained, “Jay is our St George and he's standing on a wooden chair, he sings songs and he slays dragons and he's losing all his hair”, then he calls over his friend Justin and introduces him to me as “Justin is the last great romantic poet, he's the only one among us who is ever gonna make it”. That night, his songs really came to life for me, and I don’t even think it was the whiskey. What was also different about this show was that there were so many artists, that they each had a mere 15 minute set. Maybe they were judging Frank’s following based on his minimal fan base at last year’s festival, but they were in for a surprise. Not even 5 songs into his set, the venue was giving him the boot. Together with the crowd, Frank pleaded for one more song, but to no avail. He had had enough time to get the room mesmerized, and we were hungry for more. “Out to the streets!” was the last thing to go through the microphone. Only Frank Turner. Only Frank Turner could stand in the middle of Sixth Street, amongst a flowing river of people by the thousands, standing safely in a nest of fans, with only the amplification of his own vocal chords and the help of some friends to finish his set. The last two songs, right there on the street, proved to be a truly memorable moment for all of us. We sang our hearts out, arms around strangers, trying to help Frank tell his story, and creating one for ourselves too. We were all proud to be a part of something that night.
Sometimes I get so caught up in the business of the music industry, that I forget what roped me in to begin with. As many people in this field can attest, such a huge amount of music goes through our ears that it can get hard to hear it after a while. On a personal level, one musician sang, and he sang to me. He reminded me that it’s a sunny day, and I need to get outside. There’s a lot of life to be lived, and even if we had 100 lifetimes, it wouldn’t be enough to do it all. When you stand in a crowded room amongst a sea of people, and we each feel like the words are being sung just to us, that’s what it is to be inspired. I’m not sure if it took all four shows to bring this kind of perspective back into my life or to remind me of my love for music, but I can honestly say that I came back from Austin a little different this year.
Nina Chiminec is a contributing writer for BandsonaBudget.com who works full time doing PR for SPV Records. She works with such bands as Motorhead, Sepultura, Skinny Puppy, etc. In addition to her PR background, Nina was also the bassist and manager of the NJ- based band Avery for 8 years.