It’s a bit strange to view an event that takes place four thousand nautical miles as the crow flies away from an artist’s stomping grounds as a “homecoming” of sorts, but that’s essentially what it feels like when Frank Turner plays Boston nowadays. Now a decade-plus into his post-Million Dead solo career, the English folk/singer-songwriter has now got somewhere in the neighborhood of two-dozen shows under his belt in the greater Boston area. Those shows have run the “all shapes and sizes” gamut, from a drunken singalong at McGreevy’s (the bar owned by Dropkick Murphys founder and bassist Ken Casey) to a high-energy set amongst 18,000 people at last May’s Boston Calling festival to, most recently, a pair of marathon sold out full-band shows at the 2000+ capacity House Of Blues in support of his newest album, Positive Songs For Negative People (Xtra Mile Recordings / Interscope Records).
The second of those two shows was preceded by an in-store appearance at the Newbury Comics location across the river from Boston in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. To give you an indication of the scope of Turner’s popularity in his adopted hometown, the line to obtain wristbands to the performance stretched down the location’s steep, lengthy entrance way, well over a hundred people deep…four hours before the man himself was actually due to arrive. Due to the frequently awkward setups amidst rows of media or, increasingly, Minecraft and Bob’s Burgers paraphernalia, in-store record shop appearances can be a bit of a idea that’s better in theory than in practice. Still, the enthusiastic capacity crowd for this particular event made the decent-enough layout all the more manageable. Turner started the performance with “The Next Storm,” the lead single off his latest album, and worked backwards through his catalog in one-song-per-release fashion opting for some deeper cuts rather than playing “Photosynthesis” for the 1736th time (that would come later in the evening). Ever the storyteller, Turner remained on site for a considerable time after the six-song performance, signing albums, shaking hands, hugging babies (well, a few toddlers and at least one seven-year-old) in a disarming manner that has a way of engaging even the most casual of fans. (Also, given that I’m tall and inherently mindful of that in crowded spaces, I hung way back, meaning that my better-half was on picture-taking duty for the occasion.)
The virtual homecoming party continued back in Boston proper several hours later at the House of Blues on Lansdowne Street, an occurrence made ever the more chaotic by the fact that the struggling-yet-recently-encouraging Red Sox were playing at Fenway Park which, for the out-of-towners, is directly across the too-narrow street. Turner kicked his nearly two-hour-long set off with “Get Better,” the lead single from Positive Songs For Negative People. While obviously a new track, “Get Better” has proven to be an instant crowd favorite. The twenty-two song main set included a healthy dose of PS4NP to be sure, but did a pretty solid job of keeping old-school fans and more recent converts happy (“Song Of Liberty” and “Dan’s Song” had found their respective ways out of most Turner setlists in recent years, but both made appearances on this night). It takes an unique type of performer to engage 150 people at an in-store and 2200 people at a sold out concert hall in similar fashion, but Turner seems to have it all figured out, weaving between stripped down acoustic numbers (if “Josh’s Song” doesn’t punch you in the stomach every time, you have no soul) one moment and leaving the instrumentation to his stellar Sleeping Souls bandmates (Ben Lloyd on guitar, Tarrant Anderson on bass, Matt Nasir on piano and mandolin, and the ever-so-gentlemanly Nigel Powell behind the drumkit) allowing him to draw from his hardcore frontman days the next.
Hard-working, and hard-playing, six-piece UK folk act Skinny Lister provided direct support on this night, as they’ll do for the duration of Turner’s six-week tour. At least in these parts, Skinny Lister have developed a well-deserved reputation for providing exactly the type of high-energy set that is capable of not only warming a crowd for an opener such as Turner (or the Dropkick Murphys, or Flogging Molly, as they’ve done on multiple occasions) but of earning their own legion of converts. It’s tough to really boil down a Skinny Lister performance into a few hundred words: equal parts English folk music, sea shanty, and rum-soaked singalong. The 45-minute set included three separate band member crowd surfing appearances, including Michael Camino, who seems to have perfected the art of crowd surfing while playing the double bass without killing himself or anyone else. It really is a sight to behold, as is singer Lorna Davis’ constant ball of motion.
Beans On Toast, the alter-ego of British singer-songwriter Jay McAllister, kicked the evening off almost promptly at 6:30pm, getting off to a brief false start for technical difficulty-related reasons. Beans On Toast is a criminally-underrated songwriter; honest, thought-provoking, witty and uncomfortably funny. He might not necessarily look the part, what with his oversized outfit and lack of shoes, and he may have been playing a slightly larger stage than he’s used to in these parts, but McAllister’s storytelling was quick to win over the Boston crowd which can be notoriously fickle (we’re not quite Philadelphia, but we can be close at times). McAllister and Turner are old chums (it was Beans On Toast that convinced Turner to play the acoustic guitar a decade ago), and the former even joined the latter’s set as dance instructor during “Recovery,” which, when typed out, seems like a “you had to be there moment.” There are still plenty of dates left on the Positive Songs For Negative People tour; do yourselves a favor and “be there.”
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