Live Music + Gig Reviews

Francis Dunnery @ Bush Hall, London

13 December 2003

Francis Dunnery

Francis Dunnery

Way back in the mists of time, there was a band called It Bites from Cumbria. They released a single called Calling All The Heroes, a keyboard-driven pop song that was oh so ’80s. It reached the top 10. That’s about all most people remember.

But what if I told you that The Big Lad In The Windmill, the 1986 album whence Calling All The Heroes came, was more rock than pop, and showed that frontman Francis Dunnery was one of the best guitarists of his generation? Or that follow-up album Once Around The World was a full-on progressive rock extravaganza that dragged the sounds of ’70s Genesis and King Crimson into the then modern era? Or that Eat Me In St Louis – to these ears, one of the best albums ever – had the heavy metal magazines falling over themselves with superlatives to describe the Def Leppard meets Yes sounds that met their ears?

Thankfully, there were more than a few other people who saw beneath the shiny pop surface of Calling All The Heroes and a good selection of them were sat inside the converted ballroom of Bush Hall this night, to be wowed by Francis Dunnery and his friends.

Since It Bites split in 1990, Dunnery has forged a successful solo career (at least in terms of cult following), going from American-influenced commercial rock (Welcome To The Wild Country) to becoming a mainstay at folk festivals. Tonight is simply him, his acoustic guitar and Dorie Jackson on backing vocals, a young lass with a fantastic voice who’s signed to Dunnery’s own Aquarian Nation record label.

Put simply, the man is a musical genius. When he’s not making it sound like two or more guitars are being played at the same time (as in the one song that Jackson leads with, Open Wound), he’s engaging in the type of vocal gymnastics that would send Mariah Carey running back into a nervous breakdown.

And he’s not just a musician and singer. One of the features of Dunnery’s live shows over the past few years has been how he engages the audience with wit and repartee, and sometimes verges on the stand-up comedian. So he tells us how the professor on the psychology Master’s course he is doing, has theorised that entertainers desire greater maternal attention and so are playing to a crowd which is a projection of their mother. He then describes the Glaswegian crowd at one of the week’s earlier gigs as “a big Mammy who liked to drink.” At this point he asks himself, “Now, why was I telling you that?” before answering, “Oh yeah, because I was tuning up!”

Throughout the gig, which has the feel of an intimate theatrical event, particularly with Bush Hall’s chandeliers and whopping great Christmas tree at the front, the audience is enthralled, keeping reverently hushed during the particularly quiet moments and singing along with gusto when Dunnery encourages them to.

After 12 songs that have taken in everything from the self-chastising pensiveness of Another Day to the ecstatic, blissed-out tones of I’m In Love (“Aphrodite’s sitting on her throne again in a new gown”), he goes off to a standing ovation and the audience clamouring so loudly for an encore that it feels like one of the chandeliers is going to come crashing down.

He duly obliges with a masterclass rendition of 1991’s Heartache Reborn, a song that actually sounds 10 times better when done acoustically, the winsome guitar tones perfectly complementing the aching, questioning lyrics of, “How can I possibly love you when I feel so alone?”

The reliable word is that It Bites are reforming and will record and tour together again next year. Given the acrimonious nature of Dunnery’s original departure from the band, this is nothing short of amazing. As tonight’s performance exemplified, “amazing” is clearly a word that follows Francis Dunnery around in all sorts of guises…

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