Do you ever sit back and marvel at how sometimes our smallest decisions, things that seem so ordinary and insignificant and inconsequential, can have the greatest impacts? You won’t realize just how great until after the fact, of course. But chance meetings and opportunities that stem from being in the right place at the right time possess a fragility that terrifies me. I’ve had several of these moments throughout my life and when I think of how, if my actions had changed in the slightest, the outcome could have been drastically different…that takes my breath away. One such moment was an encounter with a stranger at music festival in a New England park last summer. That meeting quite literally changed my life.
I mentioned that, for my birthday last year, I celebrated by following the JD McPherson band around New England for a few days. The first show of my “tour” was the Amourasaurus festival in Northampton, Massachusetts. They were next to last (out of five bands) on the bill, so I thought I’d be able to kick back and enjoy the openers. That was before I realized that two of the bands who went on early were local – and the front of the stage was teeming with people (if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two years of general admission concert-going, it’s that there IS no other place for me to watch a concert than the front row). I knew that if I didn’t make my move at that moment, I would probably get shut out. I’d seen a stocky guy with a greying crew cut, tattoos running up his arms, and a bulky camera bag slung over his shoulder edging his way to the front too…and he was wearing a JD McPherson shirt. Ah. A kindred spirit. There was still some space next to him, so I sidled into it and asked if anyone was standing there. His jovial response: “Yes – you are!”
And thus I was introduced to Rich, a music- and concert-loving dude who, I’m fairly sure, was the only other person in the audience who was there solely because of JD and the boys. We chatted in between sets and he was awed by the fact that I’d driven so far – seven hours – for that particular show. Awed, but not surprised. Because he felt as passionately about another musician as I did about JD. He told me tales of following that musician across the country (and, in fact, the world), how his son was the one who turned him onto this guy’s music, and how over the years they established a friendship that went beyond rock-star-and-fan. I even remember him telling me about his son having his first shot of whisky with this fellow. But though I remembered all of these tales from the road, after we parted ways once JD’s set was done, I could not for the life of me remember the name of the musician he was talking about.
At the festival, Rich had implored me to look into the musician because, according to him, I’d fit in well with that crowd. But how do you look someone up when you can’t remember who the hell they are? So I ended up forgetting all about it. A few weeks later, I reconnected with Rich first through the Youtube video above, then through Instagram. I was scrolling through Rich’s photos on that app when I saw that, a few days before we’d found each other, he’d been “on tour” with a band. Our conversation at the festival came rushing back to me and I began looking more closely at the pictures to see if he named the mystery musician. He did. His name was Frank Turner.
So apparently this Frank Turner guy is a big deal in his home country of England (and throughout Europe) and in some circles in the U.S. But I had no idea who he was. Had never so much as heard the name. A cursory internet search showed me that the music he currently plays is described as “folk punk” (oookay?), but that he’d previously fronted post-hardcore bands. I was a bit incredulous (I was a lot incredulous), but Rich said he was fantastic and Rich had good taste in music. I checked one of Frank’s CDs out of my local library because, although I trusted Rich’s opinion, I was still hedging – I didn’t want to waste fifteen bucks if it sucked.
The one thing I didn’t do though was ask Rich which album from Frank’s extensive catalog to start with, and I should have. I have a feeling I would have come around as a fan a lot faster if I had. I started with one called Tape Deck Heart, which, despite a couple songs that had a buoyancy or a loveliness to them, was very dark and bleak. I found out later that it’s an atypical Frank album, written when he was in a bad emotional state, but it left me thinking that all of his music was like that. It wasn’t bad but it was a bit of a downer.* I gave it a few cursory listens, but didn’t devote much time to it. About a month later, Rich mentioned that Frank and his band, the Sleeping Souls, would be in northern New Jersey and asked if I would want to join him there. Even though Frank was still kind of an unknown quantity to me, I was clutching onto that carpe diem attitude and I said why not. It was around Thanksgiving and I’d just gotten back from seeing that McPherson fella in Tulsa. This show was a couple weeks later, and I decided it would be my last adventure for the year.
So it was that I ended up driving to north Jersey on a cold, rainy winter night to hang out with people I barely knew, seeing a band I was only passingly familiar with.
And it ended up being one of the most memorable nights of my life.
I’ve been to a lot of concerts over the course of my life, and I can safely say that there is nothing quite like a Frank Turner show. I never dreamed that I could have so much fun being at the very front of the pit, getting crushed against the barrier by the mass of straining, thrashing, sweating, screaming, singing bodies behind me. Because, make no mistake, he may have an acoustic guitar now, but there’s more than a bit of the punk rock spirit still about him. I’ve never felt such potent energy flowing between the audience and the band. Frank is riveting to watch – a dynamic, charismatic mad man – and the audience feeds off that (as I think he feeds off them). And the Sleeping Souls, in their sharp uniform of white shirts and black slacks, are no slouches either – Matt, Nigel, Tarrant, and Ben were obviously having the time of their lives too. It was two hours and fifteen minutes of non-stop musical explosiveness.
Most people listen to a band, find meaning in their music, develop an attachment to it, and then satisfy their desire to see and hear it played live. I did it backwards – with only a cursory knowledge of Frank’s catalog, I went to a show and allowed myself to be completely immersed in the culture and environment, found that I loved it, and THEN went back and studied the music itself. And I’m so glad it happened this way. I had been blown away by the live performance, which was at turns powerful, exhilarating, moving. And when it was over, I had six albums’ worth of material to learn, a veritable treasure trove.
I usually binge-listen to artists after seeing them live, and I did with Frank too, but it was different. It wasn’t like discovering that McPherson fella. JD’s music gives me unutterable joy and fills my heart to the brim. Frank’s music, though…I’d never reacted so emotionally, so viscerally to lyrics before. He’s one hell of a songwriter, smart and passionate and real. He talks of living, truly living, about acknowledging your mortality and laughing at it, about making the most of every second you’ve got. Considering the state of my mind these last few years, questioning my worth and my decisions and the direction my life is headed, is it any wonder that this resonated with me? It got under my skin. It forced me to look inward. It made me think and desire and strive for something more.
No one gets remembered for the things they didn’t do… “Peggy Sang the Blues”
I’ve been skirting ’round the rim of doing something brave / and not just standing, but jumping in… “Plain Sailing Weather”
I keep having dreams of things I need to do / and waking up but not following through… “I Am Disappeared”
Greatness slips on by…”Losing Days”
…on the day I die / I’ll say, at least I fucking tried… “Eulogy”
We can get better ’cause we’re not dead yet… “Get Better”
…you won’t find your precious answers now by staying in one place… “The Road”
Life is about love, last minutes and lost evenings / about fire in our bellies and furtive little feelings / and the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering / and help us with remembering that the only thing that’s left to do is live. “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous”
I started quoting the song “Photosynthesis” but then realized I was copying down the whole damned thing. So here it is (in a clip from my first show at Starland Ballroom):
I’ve seen Frank twice since then, driving several hours across multiple states for the experience. One was another full-band setting; the other a brief solo acoustic set following a discussion about his book. The solo show was nothing short of amazing. The guy might have fronted a punk band but when it’s just him on an empty stage, an acoustic guitar in hand, his performance takes on a different, deeper resonance. It was beautiful.
His music came along at just the right time. I needed to hear the things he was saying, and it might not have resonated as deeply or meant as much had I found him at another time. His songs fill me with a desperate urgency to do something, anything, whatever it takes to make a mark on the world. To live fully, to be present and happy. That spirit is exactly what spurred me to start this blog, to finally tap into the long-dormant side of me that yearns to create.
And all of this deep, meaningful, introspective stuff aside – he fucking rocks.
As for fitting in with the FTHC crowd, I’ve never experienced a more open, generous, welcoming group of people in my life. Frank prides himself on this, the camaraderie shared among his fans (Google “Frank Turner tour flag” if you want the most obvious example), and I’ve met some wonderful people from all over the world at the few shows I’ve been to. Frank himself and his band and crew (especially Cahir, Frank’s guitar tech, and Tre, the road manager) are sweethearts, always taking the time to say hi to familiar faces or pose for a photo (because after all, there’s no such thing as rock stars; there’s just people who play music).
I think about the domino effect of events that brought me to this place and I’m flooded with relief that things happened as they did, and aghast at how much can ride on so little. How one small deviation can change the outcome entirely. What if I had decided that the three-hour drive to north Jersey on that winter night was just a little too much for a band I didn’t know? Or what if I hadn’t reconnected with Rich through social media? Or, let’s begin at the beginning – what if impulse made me take a spot on the left side of the stage at that festival in Massachusetts last August instead of the right, and I’d never met Rich at all?
There’s nothing to be had from living safe, and everything to be gained from taking chances. I owe a debt of gratitude to Rich and Frank for helping me see that.
*And in case anyone’s wondering, my opinion of Tape Deck Heart has done a 180 – it may be melancholy and bleak but it’s a masterwork. But England Keep My Bones and Positive Songs for Negative People are my favorites of his catalog and, I think, the best representations of him and what he does. These are the two I’d recommend to people who were interested in listening his music for the first time. So do yourselves a favor and check them out. You won’t regret it.