Review: Frank Turner – Level III Swindon, 20/01/2018
On the 5th of January, Level III announced that it would be closing indefinitely following Frank Turner’s show. The timing is ironic, considering how fiercely Turner has campaigned to save small venues around the country. At least it meant that the venue was going out on a high note. Not only was this one of the first sold out shows in the venue since Boston Manor’s appearance last May, Turner attracted one of the loudest, most enthusiastic audiences the room has ever accommodated.
Local boy Mike Barham performed a varied opening set showcasing his skills as both songwriter and storyteller. Taking to the stage half an hour after doors opened meant that there was still a queue stretching down the street outside, but he instantly hooked the people in the room. Playing a rousing rendition of The Cider Song – “One thing us Wiltshire folk all know / Is how to get a pint of cider down” – Barham took the opportunity to challenge the crowd to drink the bar dry (a task that they’d almost completed by the end of the night).
Inviting his friend Rory Sherman onto the stage, Barham proved that he’s not afraid of poignancy. Sherman joined him to perform flute on Short, Never Forgotten, marking what was probably the first time a flute had ever appeared on stage at Level III. Barham wrote the song for Sherman’s late brother, Charlie, but at this show he dedicated it to Charlie and to Anna Sherman, their mother, who recently passed away. “If we get through this, it’ll be a bloody miracle,” Barham admitted, emotional before the song had even begun. It was a touching tribute, beautifully performed, and the room fell into a respectful silence as the two men remembered their lost loved ones.
However, the majority of Barham’s set was lighthearted, and as soon as Short, Never Forgotten ended he began cracking jokes again instantly. “If he ain’t a big name in the flute world in two years,” he said, gesturing towards Sherman, “you can call me a liar.”. Back to the upbeat material, a huge chunk of the crowd erupted into cheers as he began his cover of Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins. Joking that it was a request from one of the Sheer Music family, he repeatedly muttered, “This is ridiculous!”, equally embarrassed and enthused when the audience began singing along.
Closing the set with Bowser’s Castle from his old band Old Crows, Barham might have been the least recognisable name on the bill, but he certainly made himself memorable. You can check out his debut EP, Altitude With Attitude, here – if you saw his set, you’ll recognise a lot of the songs found on it.
The Cider Song
Short, Never Forgotten
Ode To Crows
Danger Zone cover
Next up was Southampton’s Sean McGowan, who was last seen in Swindon supporting Recreations. at The Vic in 2016. Last year was a big year for McGowan: signing to Xtra Mile Recordings, he then released EP Graft and Grief; a collection of seven songs performed with a full-band.
Having indulged himself over the festive period, McGowan cracked a cheeky smile moments after taking to the stage, quipping, “Over Christmas, I’ve started looking like Jack Black! But that’s my problem, not yours”. His set certainly wasn’t the smoothest. He had a bit of a struggle to hit the low note during Never Let Us In, blaming “Too many pigs in blankets,” before joking that he really needed a break.
Things took a turn for the worst during the introduction to Costa del Solution. Breaking his guitar, he shared that his friend had recently repaired it and had informed him to “wait for the wood to settle”, but supporting Frank Turner waits for no man… Or wood.
But McGowan redeemed himself with the second half of the set, which went flawlessly. New song Life Has a Way was the highlight of his set. Before performing the track he shared that it’s going to be appearing on the full-length album he’s releasing at some point in 2018. There’s bound to be more information about that coming soon, so make sure to follow McGowan on Twitter to discover the news first.
Gag, Pt. 1
Never Let Us In
Costa del Solution
Life Has a Way
Frank Turner dived into his set with no hesitation, performing a career-spanning setlist to promote recent greatest hits album Songbook. Immediately following unreleased opening song Get It Right with fan favourite Get Better, the singalongs started early and continued throughout the night. The inebriated crowd threw their arms in the air – and around each other – raising their voices as loudly as they possibly could during The Road, The Queen is Dead and Photosynthesis. It was the send off that Level III deserved.
Turner and Swindon have a lot of history, and he shared that Level III – back when it was The Furnace – is actually responsible for his beard, because he stage dived and split his chin open on one of the barriers around the standing area (which have since been removed). He was embarrassed to admit that 11 years had passed since he’d last played here, but in 2006/7 he played five shows across the town’s various venues. Namedropping The Vic and Riff’s Bar, an eager crowd member threw 12 Bar’s name into the mix, to which Turner replied, “Yes, good!”.
At the start of his set, Turner shared that this was his 2130th show, and it was apparent that the majority of people in the crowd had attended at least one of the preceding 2129. Some members of the audience were wearing well-loved band shirts from Turner’s bands Million Dead and Mongol Horde, respectively, while there was a large range of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls shirts in the room, too. Despite the fact that he’s just a man with a guitar, there’s something charming and lovable about him. His loyal fans are the reason he’s been able to play venues like The O2 and Wembley Stadium in the past few years.
A big part of Turner’s appeal are his lyrics, which have universal appeal. Before playing new song There She Is – dedicated to his partner, Jess – he shared that one of the most humbling things about being a musician is when people use his music for their first dance at their wedding. However, he said he often finds himself thinking, “Which fucking song? They’re all sad! That one? The one about the break up in the service station? You played THAT ONE at your fucking wedding?!”. He was glowing with happiness when he shared the fact that There She Is is the first truly happy love song he’s written, an indication of how well his relationship must be going.
Putting his fans first, Turner squeezed some requested rarities into the set. First up was Mr. Richards, which he admitted he’d “only ever played live […] about three times”, followed later in the set by Balthazar, Impresario and Father’s Day. The latter was eagerly requested by someone in the crowd, but Turner told him it wouldn’t be possible to fit in because the other requests were “sent in in writing prior to the evening”. Unsurprisingly, he changed his mind and managed to fit it in anyway, although he did precede the song by admitting he was “rattling through them a bit” because he was starting to run out of time.
It’s impossible that anybody left disappointed, because the set was impossible to fault. The atmosphere was electric, bringing the taste of a headline set at a summer festival to a small show in Swindon. At times the crowd didn’t even need to be encouraged to sing the backing vocals, allowing Turner to perform the songs exactly as he would with his backing band on a much larger stage.
The only thing missing was the standard wait for an encore, which Turner justified by saying, “Doing an encore for my solo shows is fucking weak, especially because the dressing room is a mile away!”. It was much better that the set continued without pause, because the audience were already worked up into a frenzy. When Turner began his cover of Queen’s Somebody To Love, the already explosive crowd reaction reached a fever pitch. During Photosynthesis, he expressed his regard for McGowan, sharing that he was “one of the only people who, if I wake up and find them asleep on my sofa downstairs, it actually makes my day brighter”. He then challenged him to buy Jameson shots from the bar and deliver them to him on stage before the end of the set, intending on them drinking together until he remembered that McGowan was driving.
Wrapping up the set with I Still Believe, it was surprising that anyone in the room left the show able to speak. Turner ran off for a moment halfway through to accept the shot from McGowan – who, unable to get hold of Jameson, delivered sambuca instead – and he grimaced as he realised, yelling, “That wasn’t fucking whiskey!”. The next thing, McGowan was on stage playing the harmonica, the set reaching an unforgettable conclusion.
Get It Right
If Ever I Stray
Four Simple Words
There She Is
The Real Damage
21st Century Survival Blues
The Queen Is Dead
I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous
The Ballad of Me and My Friends
The Next Storm
The Way I Tend To Be
Somebody To Love cover
I Still Believe
Last, but certainly not least, a huge thank you to Sheer Music, who brought Frank Turner to our little town. It’s been a long time since Level III has been that full, and it’s a damned shame that it only happened on their closing night. Keep an eye out for updates on the future of the venue here.