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Live review: Frank Turner at Oxford’s New Theatre

Writing about music is an inherently frustrating activity—writing about live music perhaps even more so. But Frank Turner certainly makes a go of it: as well as innumerable songs about contentment with life and perseverance in the face of adversity, several songs of his take on the form of meta-commentary on the music itself. That is, something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll trying to save us all.

Despite being peppered with references to Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and enough other literary titans to keep an Oxford audience happy, Frank’s music has an underlying simplicity. The themes are earthy and familiar: falling in love, falling out of love, living, dying and blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London.

Like much of the music I know, I was introduced to Frank Turner by my elder siblings playing his songs during car journeys. The first song of his I remember hearing is ‘Four Simple Words’. Breaking the musical fourth wall, its first lines evoke the solitary experience of listening to his music on a portable stereo at the back of a bus, and then of singing along to the very same song in a concert hall. This is one wonder that all concerts have in common: fans of a musician are, in a sense, reunited, able to voice their appreciation in unison for rock and roll saving us all. This warm, toasty feeling is what all the greatest concerts surely embody. And it undeniably was there.

The first opening act, Esme Patterson, offered an interesting excerpt from a concept album of hers responding to famous songs addressed to women, while Felix and the Family turned up the volume for their half-hour and regularly raised the spectre of Frank to keep the audience interested. Nevertheless, this is hardly a fault. All things considered, the opening acts were solid—considering opening bands are often written off as only existing to showcase the relative strength of the main act. Needless to say, when Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls appeared, they hardly put a foot wrong in their two hours’ traffic upon the stage.

Unfortunately, great concerts can be let down by their venues—it’s difficult to rock out surrounded by seats, though we gave it our best shot. The most interesting venue-related moment came when Frank insisted that two randomly picked members of the audience charge over the chairs to the mixer, kiss the lighting technician on the cheek and return to the stage on the other side while he performed ‘If Ever I Stray’. The security guards were clearly not particularly impressed, but much fun was had (despite the wrong team winning the race).

Several songs in, Frank noted that the vibe wasn’t quite what he was after. It was, he said, more like a “sixth form disco” than a rock concert. The crowd, admittedly, wasn’t the best – nor was it the worst of any concert I’ve attended (that award goes to the audience of a concert in London four years ago who almost turned into a drunken, angry mob by the final song). By the end, the “sixth form disco” had receded from view and most of us had woken up to our surroundings, making for a far more enjoyable and lively musical experience.

Almost obligatory was a mention from Frank of what a frankly appalling year 2016 has been—for humanity, for decency, for peace and security and for hopes of a prosperous future. Frank’s answer was not necessarily one of optimism; it was essentially one of narrower horizons, of smaller desires and ambitions, of contentment with what is in the moment, of moments of hedonism and aestheticism. Or, to put it for at least one evening into four simpler words: rock, roll and happiness.

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