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FRANCIS DUNNERY and The New Progressives
Bush Hall, London 1 November 2009

The last time I saw Francis Dunnery, he was belting out pared down reworkings of old It Bites classics, accompanied by the sweet tones of backing vocalist Dorie Jackson and a few dozen friends and fans in the bizarre setting of my kitchen (check out Mark Taylor's GRTR! review) opposite the sink and a foot to the left of my Wallace and Grommitesque boiler.

A quantum leap from the ‘big hair' pop/prog of 80s It Bites where Top of the Pops and Vari-Lite strewn venues were his natural habitat, but Francis is not your usual rock star, as well as his normal album/touring schedule, he plays House Concerts all over the world where he can play and talk to fans in intimate settings.

Between the progtastic days of It Bites and tonight it has been a long journey for Francis, relocating to the United States, various solo ventures, and a number of albums, touring as guitarist for Robert Plant as well as guesting on albums by Elton John and Carlos Santana.

As heavily publicised, this tour and the coinciding album There's a Whole New World Out There were going to be based around Francis revisiting It Bites material with a new slant.

The venue was packed with a crowd eager to hear Francis returning musically to his roots, and the dimming of the lights sent a wave of anticipation around the 1900s frescoed dance hall.

However instead of the usual gig intro tape the voice of a hypnotherapist filled the hall but instead of getting us to give up smoking or drink, Francis' voice punctuated the calm encouraging us to perform lewd acts and buy t shirts.

Starting on a high, the band hit the stage and launched straight into Kiss Like Judas an old It Bites classic, but with Francis armed with a semi acoustic, the song was given a shuffle/swing treatment, more restrained than the 20+ year old original, but the new arrangement explored the songs beautiful melody with perfect harmony vocals provided by Dorie Jackson.

Next up is the title track of the latest album There's a Whole New World Out There and again the more intimate and relaxed feel to the evening continues, the song's intro being very reminiscent of Peg by Steely Dan and the stripped down sound gives a real dynamism.

One of the biggest surprises on the new album is the inclusion of New Order's Love Will Tear Us Apart and tonight it is given additional surprise by the appearance on stage of Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery.

It's folkish sensibilities are the perfect foil for Rothery's fluid yet restrained solo lifting it to new heights, the crowd, in the main prog stalwarts, respond accordingly and with a polite wave Steve acknowledges the response and disappears stage left.

The show is now gathering momentum and Francis straps on his old trademark It Bites white Stratocaster and bursts into the opening riff of Calling To You a whirling eastern riff with drummer Paul Ramsay, bassist Jamie Bishop and rhythm guitarist Brett Kull driving the rhythm giving Frank plenty of room to flex his rock chops and show that he still cuts it amongst the other great prog guitarists with Dorie providing an Yvonne Elliman counter to Franks Eric Clapton, while on keyboards, Tom Brislin fills the sound perfectly.

In fact the whole show has the feel of a man rediscovering his roots but taking them in a less obvious direction, like Clapton he proves that even though he certainly can, you don't have to play at a million miles an hour to play beautifully.

Which brings us perfectly to the next song, yet again an unexpected cover, this time it's Japan's Still Life in Mobile Homes, a haunting song made even more haunting by the Blade Runneresque flute playing of Theo Travis.

The set moves through the pop hooks of Holiday and onto Charlie where the legendary tapboard (a complicated instrument that defies description) comes into it's own creating a blend of Latin staccato and Japanese classical sounds.

Punctuating the evening with his now legendary humour Francis the band move on through It Bites classics Sister Sarah, Underneath Your Pillow and Yellow Christian.

Next up is one of the new album's high points, an edgy cover of Back in New York City from Genesis' Lamb Lies Down. With Francis paying homage to his musical heroes.

For the shows closing song it is Let Us All Go another It Bites song, but one that Francis said he had only agreed to do if the band played it as a bluegrass number, enter two young musicians discovered whilst on his house tour guitarist Luke Machin and fiddle player Guy Fieldhouse who proceed to blow up a shitkicking storm with Luke stealing Franks thunder by playing a searing solo at a thousand notes a second. The audience are jigging like crazy as the show comes to a dramatic close and the band disappear.

The obvious stomping and chanting of MORE brings the band back to the stage and it's a sing along to Still Too Young To Remember, smiling singing faces all around as the show ends and the house lights go up.

A very different evening for most, especially for those of us that remember the flowing locks and rock star poses of 80s It Bites. But Francis Dunnery is a man who has moved on and despite his legendary prog guitarist status it is clear to see he is a man totally at ease with himself, his songs and his new less flash and more refined guitar playing.

A great gig and a speedy return to these shores is essential

Review by Geoff Banks

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