26 January 2005. It’s Australia Day and a non-Antipodean like me needs a darn good reason to be visiting the mini-Melbourne that is London’s Shepherd’s Bush district. Enter Francis Dunnery – one-time frontman of Cumbrian prog-rockers It Bites, guitarist extraordinaire, prolific songwriter, stunning vocalist, record company boss (Aquarian Nation, home to former Squeeze man Chris Difford) and PhD student in psychology. Oh, and he’s an astrologer but I predict that that won’t be mentioned again in this review…
Dunnery is touring to promote his new album, The Gulley Flats Boys, but instead of his usual format of man, acoustic guitar and backing singer, this time he’s also joined by David Sancious – the keyboard whizz who was an original member of Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band and who’s recorded with everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Santana.
Having Sancious on board certainly adds a new dimension to Dunnery’s sound and it’s clear from the opening song that after working on The Gulley Flats Boys, the two have already developed a sense of musical understanding that borders on the telepathic. Although there are times when their extended jamming borders on the self-indulgent (not least because the wonderful backing voice of Dorie Jackson is woefully under-utilised as a consequence), for the most part their joint wizardry is simply jaw-dropping and peaks with a memorable, improvised “duel” that sees Sancious having the last word by cheekily playing Chopsticks.
Such humour is a normal part of Dunnery’s live shows and tonight is no different, whether it be in his self-effacing banter (“I’m quite a happy person but that’s probably because I depress the s**t out of everyone else”), his stories (he introduces one song by saying he played it for an obsessive fan who was about to propose to his girlfriend in Central Park), or his lyrics (“I was only doing yoga ‘cos I fancied the teacher” from Too Much Saturn).
Of course, being a technical music maestro with a sense of humour is pretty useless unless you know how to write songs but, thankfully, Dunnery has plenty of good ones in his armoury. Newies like Through My Father’s Eyes and Chocolate Heart – with their chirpy tunes masking deeper, biographical lyrics – sit comfortably alongside older songs such as Immaculate, I’m In Love and Wounding & Healing.
Unfortunately there are no It Bites songs tonight, although Dunnery does play Good Life – which appeared on 1994’s Fearless album, but was written towards the end of It Bites’ time together. In fact, Dunnery admits that his past still haunts him, claiming from the stage that when when he recorded Heartache Reborn for his first solo album in 1991, he “didn’t have the balls” to record it “beautifully” because he had a misguided notion that he was “some kind of rock dude”.
Heartache Reborn 2005-fashion, is beautiful. However, I assume I’m not the only one who’s concerned that from now on, we’ll only ever hear Dunnery playing acoustic. Teasingly, during the encore he gets his electric guitar out and give us a five-minute exhibition of riffing and soloing that is almost loud enough to be heard Down Under. Which all goes to show that, whilst Francis Dunnery may not be a “rock dude” any more, whether he’s playing acoustic or electric, he is a dude who resolutely still rocks.