Francis Dunnery – Manchester, Club Academy – 20 January 2018 Print E-mail
Written by Ben Hughes   
Thursday, 01 February 2018 04:40

Francis DunnerySince leaving It Bites back in 1990, Francis Dunnery has carved out a successful solo career that seriously outshines his proggy beginnings. For me, personally, peaking in the mid-Nineties with the sublime ‘Tall Blonde Helicopter’, an album I really keep meaning to dissect and review in-depth. Still touring and releasing quality albums on his own label, Francis also studies and practises astrology - and hell, you can even book him for an intimate house concert, he does them the world over.


But tonight is not about his solo career and it’s definitely not intimate. Billed as the ‘Eat Me In St. Louis’ tour, Francis and his band will be celebrating that third, and some would say seminal, It Bites album, released way back in 1989, with several UK dates. Bookended by Wolverhampton and London, Über Rock chose to check out the Manchester date.


But first up we have to deal with The M62. That bastard of a motorway, where you can never be too sure how long it will take to get from A to B. Tonight, due to a crash, it takes way longer than expected and I unfortunately miss hotly-tipped New Yorkers Clayton-Ellis, who I was really hoping to catch. Sorry guys, but watch out for a review of that debut album very soon!


By the time we enter the Club Academy, Francis and his band are already well into their set. It’s packed in here and there is no chance of getting near the front. This I was not expecting, a similar size venue to Fibbers back in York, I do wonder to myself how busy it would be if he was actually playing in my hometown venue tonight.


The band are already way into ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ and it sounds fantastic. The band are tight and rocking, the sound crystal clear. With an ‘Eat Me In St. Louis’ t shirt, a flat cap covering his now shaved head, the ever-smiling Cumbrian-born singer/songwriter is seemingly in his element. Favouring an SG this tour, the guitar sound is meaty and it makes a big difference to a bunch of songs that do have a tendency to sound dated on record in 2018. The following ‘Til The End Of Time’ drives home that observation in more ways than one.


The drummer is out of sight from my viewpoint for most of the set, but not out of mind, tucked away in an alcove. What a hitter! With bass, keyboards and a second guitar player completing the main band line up, the sound is full, rich and gives the songs a new lease of life.


But Francis brings more than just his band to entertain Manchester on this cold Saturday in January. A guy in a gorilla suit is onstage serving drinks during between song incidental music, a pantomime horse makes an appearance, and one of the backing singers (who may well have been his daughter?) takes part in fan interactive Bingo from the stage, to win a selection of goodies from the merch stand. Bizarre? Yes, unnecessary? Nah, it makes it feel a bit like Christmas again, so much so, I was expecting to be offered a mince pie instead of a pint. You see, Francis Dunnery is a highly skilled raconteur, he thrives on a bit of banter, a lot of chat and engaging with his audience. He gives value for money and makes you feel part of the show. He cares that you are having a good time and is not just here to go through the motions and take the money and run.


He thinks nothing of pulling up fans to sing backing vocals for songs one minute and the next taking the piss out of where they come from. It says something that an artist in his position can sell out three shows in a row, where many greater (or should I say commercially successful) bands would struggle.


Being more of fan of his solo work than It Bites, it did at times veer a bit too far into prog territory for my liking, but that was to be expected. The fret wankery is kept to a minimum to be fair, the introduction of the tapping board solo thing, quite bearable. Yet, the likes of ‘Plastic Dreamer’, ‘Sister Sarah and ‘Murder On Planet Earth’ are played with virtuosity and passion by a band who gel tightly after only a brief tour rehearsal. I will say one thing, Francis has a very distinctive voice and it never faltered, as strong and impressive as his guitar playing all night.


As the band leave the stage the whole room sing the chorus to ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, pretty much letting their hero know what they want for an encore. But Frankie keeps them waiting for a moment longer with an encore of the recent ‘Frankenstein Monster’, a song that goes a long way to prove the Gulley Flats boy has still got it! ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ has everyone in the room singing for one last time. A highlight of the night and a sublime way to end a set that veered from magical to prog-tastic self-indulgence at its finest.


Highly regarded as a musician, a producer, an astrologist and a storyteller, Francis Dunnery continues to create and entertain fans of his solo work, It Bites and beyond. Tonight was a master class in how to re-imagine and celebrate an album that is nearly 30 years old. He should really have a higher profile than he currently enjoys in the UK. Maybe you should get him round your house for tea!


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