It’s Thursday evening, April the 8th. Every day has suddenly felt like a month in itself, as we near the end of a year-long disconnection from the world.
I feel the need to say this because : we need live music back. We need to share that magic created instantaneously when performers grace the stage, extend their magic across a bar stool down to the folks across who need sounds to soothe their souls. We need those intimate moments now more than ever.
For now, we have the incredibly generous energy and love that Frank Turner and Emily Barker brought to our screens, from Tunbridge Wells. I honestly feel after this it won’t be long till we see them live. The backstory to this gig is probably worth mentioning, as it gives a wonderful backdrop to the eclectic set. On Saturday August 19th, 2006, as every Saturday back then, bands, fans and friends gathered in the sweaty darkness of Brixton’s beloved Windmill music venue, as part of the regular “Sadder Days” night, organised by London alt-country heroes, The Tailors. Emily played a set with her band, The Red Clay Halo; Frank was in the crowd, glued to the performances. Fast-forward to their livestream today, the pair delivered an honest, unassuming performance; it felt like I was right there, cider in hand, instantly drawn to both of their voices, clearly a bond borne out of a friendship of storytellers.
The conversation and introduction of friendly banter between the two in between songs was most welcome. You don’t get that very often, even at smaller capacity gigs like this; and it adds such a welcoming dimension to the performance.
The evening was a mixture of alt.country, singer-songwriter gems ranging from original material, classics and a few fantastic originals. Starting off with a wonderful tribute to the late John Prine with a laid back rendition of In Spite Of Ourselves’ . ‘Wheels And White Lines’ – featured in the film Hector ; an original composed by Barker was a masterful follow-up, showcasing her masterful songwriting. Her songs really draw you in, with a mixture of Americana meets English contemporary folk, complimented by Turner’s harmony, both vocally and musically.
At first glance, so to speak, you could instantly see the kind of musical chemistry that many classic musical pairs held in their captive audience, such as Johnny Cash and June Carter, as well as James Taylor and Carly Simon.
Tunbridge Wells seemed to echo with more joy as the friendly duet brought on their fantastic accompanists: Matt Nasir (double bass), Lukas Drinkwater (keys), and Jess Guise (backing vocals) for George Johnson’s “Golden Ring” . If you closed your eyes, for a split-second I thought I was transported to somewhere in Nashville, on a street corner, joining in on the bluegrass chorus.
If dancing were to occur at any point it would be to the ultimately groovy version of the infamous “Jackson”, come to life (I especially loved the harmonica on this one); it was clear that the band were really at ease, completely engaged with one another.
What followed was northing short of wonderful, and truly certified Turner’s ability to make everything seem ‘easy’ – he brought up the wonderful Carducci String quartet, after admitting they hadn’t seen the music until this moment. “Love Hurts”, as made famous by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, was a standout performance (after Turner gleefully retuned his guitar), showcasing the warmth and emotional vocal timbre of both singing partners, and wonderful orchestral backdrop from Carducci Strings. It was a great decision to bring them along, they brought something quite monumental to the otherwise stripped down set.
Building on that it only seemed natural to bring on two of the greats, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, in, you guessed it,”Under Pressure”. Utter chills with this one; it hit the spot on so many levels. To bring a classic like that and deliver an acoustic performance was already a feat. Once again, vocally, both Barker and Turner totally owned their musicianship. Barker’s falsetto crescendo into and Turner’s belting “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance” was truly a reminder of what music, and only music, has that uncanny ability to do: make us feel connected to that which cannot be spoken, only felt. It also reminded me, needless to say of the year of lockdown, yet by the end of that performance one felt relieved, knowing that the pressure was not going to stay much longer.
“Silent Key” is the kind of song that certified Frank Turner’s place on the contemporary folk scene, drawing on his masterful storytelling and truly cinematic feel. Turner is the kind of writer and performer that blends all your favourite things about folk-rock past, present and future: he sings about the stories that need to be heard, often paying tribute to unsung heroes. You could literally visualise the astronaut protagonist in this performance, with cinematic accompaniment from the Carducci Quartet.
Following was another original from Barker, “Fields of June”, a song that often was performed since first playing together all those years ago at Tunbridge Wells. Once again, adding the string quartet to this was fantastic, almost giving an otherwordly quality. Barker shone with her banjo playing on this one (even though she coyishly downplayed it).
“Old Flames”, a love song from Turner, saw a bluesier side to the set, showcasing the kaleidoscopic musicality of the two singing partners. Both were in full form throughout the entire gig, and I have to remark how they both have that uncanny ability to write and perform originals which make you feel like you were more in a video than live – bringing the livestream experience to life. This is obviously what happens when you have such fine musicians on stage, that don’t need anything other than their voices, stories, and many fine instruments.
As if the energy couldn’t get any better, the pair then brought another infamous duo to the stage, (and one of my favourites): Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ classic love ballad, “Islands In The Stream”. You really can’t go wrong with this song, and such was the case with Barker and Turner. They went from being incredible songwriters in one instant to artful interpreters, with a beautiful vocally delicious, harmonic end. Going back to what I said at the very beginning; you’ve got to also love that carefree, candid and laidback nature of the pair, especially Turner who, before playing the next song, claimed it once again to be unrehearsed. You could seriously have never told the difference. Which is why throwing Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” into the gig bag was genius.
Truly mesmerising on all levels was an original song written by the duet, performed publicly for the first time: “Bound For Home”, written in 2019, was composed on the roof of Turner’s London home. A nostalgic song about missing home (Barker is originally Australian) and based loosely on the poem by Clive James, “Leçons de ténèbres”, tit was heart-achingly beautiful, with a lyric that surely will be remembered as timeless – “Where does that leave me arguing with unreliable memories”. Perhaps the one sombre track from the entire set it shone a different light on the pair.Personally, I would love to hear an entire album around this theme from the pair, as collaborative songwriting is hard to come by and these two shine in it.
Warmly echoing Turner’s sentiments, although this gig was a true gem, hopefully we will get the chance to return to the way music should be heard: live and with an audience. You need to see these two in person, unravelling their storytelling.
Thanks for the music, folks! And yes, the cowboy hats were a good call.