Ah, Frank Turner. The folk-punk troubadour may well be among the most divisive figures in the UK music industry. His detractors will tell you he’s a narcissistic Eton-educated gobshite who needs to stop recording everything he writes. His supporters are some of the most dedicated in the genre, with members of the ‘Frank Turner Army’ boasting attendance at 50+ Turner shows, and plastering Instagram with FT fan tats*. He’s a cluster of contradictions– a privately educated everyman rocker, a folk-punk musician who sold out Wembley Arena, a libertarian who regularly collaborates with Billy Bragg.
Love him or hate him – and indeed, very few seem to be indifferent – you can’t deny Turner is a dedicated artist – and his fanatical dedication to his craft and his fans (he still makes a point of responding to every fan email) is matched in the passion of his Turnerites. As of the time of writing, Turner has played 2367** sets in 48 countries – averaging 150 shows per year. Call him what you will – icon, toff, wannabe, inspiration – but it can’t be denied the man is a goddamn trooper.
2000trees is something of a members club festival – the bill features probably more returning acts than any other UK event, and Turner is perhaps the festivals most loyal ambassador. He played the first edition in 2007, and has since returned six times – notably in 2016 when he played ‘England Keep My Bones’ in full in one of the summers worst-kept secret sets. This year’s Trees saw him up his game even more, performing three sets on three stages*** over the weekend.
Turner: Take 1 – Headliner
The Turner Army have long since set up a battalion by the Main Stage as the Thursday daylight dims. There’s anticipation in the air, ruptured to celebration as Turner bursts onto stage with the Souls, obligatory Reservoir Dogs white-shirt-and-tie clad, immediately launching into ‘Get Better’. As the crowd belt back every resilient ‘Not! Dead! Yet!’, the mood is well and truly set.
A call-to-action of ‘Let’s get this party started ‘precedes a furiously upbeat ‘1933’ from Turners last album. The crowd are loving it, and do their best to keep up with the rapid-fire lyrics – ‘Don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn’ might be the 21st century’s answer to ‘Call me when you try to wake her up’.
For someone who by his own admission has a tendency to run his mouth, Turner isn’t actually one for long speeches in between songs, preferring to blast through as much material in his allocated 70 minutes as he can. He says what he needs to say – reiterating his love for the festival and making sure to give his long time collaborators the Sleeping Souls their due.
Of course, the staples are given their due diligence – ‘Long Live the Queen’ hits that right mix of emotional and lively. It’s always been slightly puzzling that such a poignant, personal song has become a set list staple, but there’s a certain poetry to it – thousands of people rocking out to a celebration of your life is a legacy many here would hope for.
We get the anthemic ‘The Road’, with the crowd dutifully pointing East and West. We get ‘The Way I Tend To Be’, a welcome change in tempo where Turners vocals get a chance to showcase. Best of all, we get ‘I Am Disappeared ‘– a solid contender for Turners finest hour as a lyricist, and one that’s not played enough. And we obviously get ‘I Still Believe’, which is still a set list highlight after over 1000 renditions.
‘Sister Rosetta’ is the newest number, and has swiftly become a crowd favourite. A deviation from Turners usually heavily autobiographical songwriting, the narrative explores the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose contribution to rock has mainly been lost to history… until now. If its not too sycophantic to say so, with the size of Turners fanbase, a tribute done as well as this could well re-vitalise Ms Tharpe’s legacy, 40+ years post her passing.
As he closes with the somewhat divisive ‘Four Simple Words’ – a song Turner seems more enamoured with than his fans do – Frank calls a young woman into the empty circle pit to join him for a dance in the crowd…. Cute on the surface, certainly, and no doubt a fond memory for the lady in question, but the cynical among us can’t help but think, ‘Springsteen did this first and did this better. You aren’t Springsteen, Frank, and you don’t need to be’. That’s a churlish take though – between this and the Wall of Hugs phase he had going for a while, Turner can still be commended for mixing things up a bit.
2000trees has struggled somewhat finding the right headline acts – the beloved hardcore and mathrock regulars on the bill simply won’t shift enough tickets, and the mainstream acts who will guarantee punters often don’t fit the festivals indie-punk vibe. Turner is the perfect balance of the two – wildly popular while retaining that punk ethos and energy. Nearly every track is a big, sing-along number, and the vibe never wavers through a commendable mix of softer-folk and lively pop-punk. Will this convert any Frank detractors? Probably not, but Turner doesn’t need to convert anyone as tonight proves – he has an army of loyal fans and will repay that loyalty with headline sets like tonights, time and time again.
Turner: Take 2 – Acoustic
One of the many places 2000trees shines in on its busker stages – with five in total, four of which are named after notable Trees performers. It’s a pleasure to see the Camp Frabbit stage busy once again after its introduction last year – an unobtrusive monument to the late Scott Hutchisons life and work.
This set was not on the bill, but punters who see the masses crowded around the tiny Turner stage quickly connect the dots and join the growing crowd. Dismayed festival security desperately tries to keep a path clear as more and more passers-by realise what is happening – Franks haters can now add ‘fire hazard’ to their list of Turner criticisms.
There’s not too much that can be said or needs to be said about a five song acoustic set – it’s mainly a fantastic reminder of the inclusivity of this part of the festival. Where else can the headline act play a few minutes apart from an open mic performer? ‘The Opening Act of Spring’ is a excellent number, Turner using the intimate format to air an underrated track from ‘Tape Deck Heart’. ‘Don’t Worry’, one of the mellower numbers from ‘Be More Kind’ is well suited to here as well. He finishes on a sing-along acoustic take of ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’ – about the only number from his 2007 debut that still gets regular play-outs, fitting to end such a Turner-centric day by going back to the beginning. Finally, the man of the hour – who looks about ready to pass out but is still grinning, departs into the night. Frankly (sorry…) it’s a commendable for anyone to bust out a well-honed acoustic set barely an hour after headlining a festival.
Turner: Take 3 – Mongol Horde
Turners hardcore punk days are, to many, a largely forgotten early chapter in his musical journey. A turbulent split from Million Dead, a conscious move towards a folkier sound, an stir-raising decision to drop the ‘HC’ from his Twitter handle (yes, really) – one could be forgiven for thinking Turner had effectively disowned his hardcore heritage. However the last few years have seen him dust off the cobwebs and get screamy again with Mongol Horde – who in true Turner style, ruffled some media feathers with the band accused of cultural appropriation for their name (no comment.)
Comprising just 21 of his 2671+ gigs, Mongol Horde feels like a bit of a fans secret, with Turner allowing his beloved festival to be let in on. Tonight he emerges clad in silver singlet and three kilos of glitter, looking like an attendee at the first Mars Pride. It’s certainly a visual set, though between the harsh red and blue lighting and the fact that Turner is sparkling like zirconium has every photographer in the vicinity shaking their head in despair.
Those who came to Mongol Horde off the back of his solo work – and lets be frank (I swear I’m not doing this intentionally) that’s 98% of the crowd – may not convert to hardcore fans of hardcore after this, but Turners return to his roots is very watchable – the energy he’s commended for in the folk world translates well here. He’s not the rail-thin, bouffanted angry youth he was with Million Dead, but his second hardcore chapter is one of a seasoned musician – playing his fans adoration of him for all its worth as he repeatedly melts into the mass of raised hands.
Fans of this fierce subculture will have more worthwhile things to say about the technical quality of Turners final 2000trees set of the weekend – but it’s pretty telling that several social media posts crop up in the aftermath, calling what could have been a larky afterthought the set of the weekend. And sure, many will reserve that accolade for his headline show but that’s Frank for you. He does nothing by halves. This time he did it in a glorious three.
*In case there’s any doubt where this reviewer stands, I’m currently on 12 Frank sets and working on a design for a ‘Not Dead Yet’ tattoo.
** That number is gigs as a solo artist/with the Sleeping Souls. If you count every solo set and every set with the five bands he has played with, the archive lists 2671 gigs. Isn’t data fun?
*** Alongside at least one guest appearance in other acts sets. He’s pretty relentless.