Putting the word “Sensational” in your band’s name may seem a bit presumptuous, ironic even—but in the case of Francis Dunnery’s new group, which played its first-ever gig on 9/12/13, it’s not an overstatement. Rather, it’s an accurate reflection of the outstanding musicianship and personality this band—especially its titular frontman—displayed in this very special performance.
The concert was held at the Sellersville Theater, a charming, acoustically perfect, intimate (seats about 350) concert hall based in a historic building in rustic Bucks County, Pa., not far from Dunnery’s home base in the state’s Pocono mountains.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Francis Dunnery (see my interview here), who hails from England’s Cumbria region, may not be a household name, but he’s a well-established musician in the states, especially on the east coast. In recent years, he’s mostly gigged as a solo acoustic performer, playing clubs and house parties. Ask anyone who’s seen one of these shows, and odds are they’ll recount a very special experience—not only of music, but also filled with stories, bawdy language, and even a taste of Dunnery’s other passion and profession, astrology.
The Sellersville show was all of that and more. Rather than being the start of an extended tour, this performance was really a warm-up with his new band, which only rehearsed twice together prior to this night.
It’s a testament to the abilities—and intuition—of the players that it came off as well as it did. Sure, the band members (keyboardist Mike Cassedy, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Tony Beard) were watching Dunnery for cues and direction throughout—but I didn’t hear a bum note or see a missed cue.
The primary objective of the evening was to premiere songs from Dunnery’s upcoming album Frankenstein Monster, which is a collection of songs originally recorded by Necromandus, an English band that was led by his late older brother, guitarist Barry “Baz” Dunnery.
In our interview, Dunnery discussed how challenging this material was to take on, a point that was illustrated by the opening song of the night, “Blood of My Fathers,” in which the band laid down a jazzy, jammy groove over which Dunnery picked out some stunning lead guitar lines.
It should be noted that, in classic opening night tradition, the show didn’t start off without a hitch—as the band came out, Dunnery, in his typical honest style, told the crowd that there was no power coming to the bass amp at first. Also, he apparently broke a guitar string just before he went on. If it’s good luck to say “break a leg” to show people before they hit the stage, the superstition being that wishing them bad luck brings good luck, then a few theatrical “legs” were certainly broken to make this omelette.
Dunnery and the band certainly handled it with good humor. They made no secret of the nature of the performance—that it was the band’s first show, and there could possibly be some rough spots—and eased the audience into a feeling of comfort and informality. This may not have been one of Dunnery’s house party gigs, but his laid-back approach certainly felt like the theater was one big living room. He brought the “house” to this party.
The set was front-loaded with Frankenstein Monster material—as if they wanted to get the “hard” stuff—or at least the songs that the audience would be less familiar with—out of the way before getting into more familiar territory. The new songs had whimsical titles such as “Marijuana Make Those Eyes at Me For?” and “Ho Ho Your Sandwiches.” And the songs of his brother do represent a deviation from the rest of Dunnery’s solo catalog, which made up the bulk of this show.
While the Baz/Necromandus music veers towards bluesy, jazzy and proggy passages with plenty of space for improvisation, Dunnery’s solo material has been song-oriented stuff, downplaying his virtuoso guitar playing in favor of chords, textures, rhythm and Dunnery’s one-of-a-kind voice and lyrics.
The set touched upon his previous solo albums, including Fearless (1994), Tall Blonde Helicopter (1995) and Let’s Go Do What Happens (1998). As Dunnery is the only person singing in this band, there were plenty of open spaces for the audience to sing along in songs like “American Life in the Summertime.” The lack of backing vocals made this show reminiscent of the artist’s solo performance; even with the presence of the band, it was still the intimate sound of one voice covering all of the bases.
And what a voice! Dunnery’s vocals have changed over the years since his start with 1980s British prog-rock band It Bites. While that era found him channeling Peter Gabriel, Dunnery’s found a different voice over the course of his solo career—a quieter, gentler sound, hitter higher notes in a style more reminiscent of solo-era Sting, but all his own.
This show certainly provided more of a forum for Dunnery to shine as a guitar soloist than his one-man acoustic shows do. His brother’s songs certainly gave him ample room to stretch out, and Dunnery made the most of the opportunity, slicing through the mix with incredible runs—not just a barrage of fast notes, but a stream of notes that count, that make melodic sense and are inventive and memorable.
And although this band is billed as “electric”, there were a number of songs for which Dunnery switched to acoustic guitar. No need to claim false advertising, however—when he and his band played, the vibe was anything but laid-back. This music was electric in the best sense of that word.
A note about the band: tremendous, top to bottom. The most noteworthy instrumentalist besides Dunnery, of course, would have to be drummer Tony Beard. A noted NYC-based session player who counts work with Hall & Oates, Peter Frampton and Roger Daltrey among his many credits, Beard was very fluid, comfortable and in the pocket throughout the evening, always providing a perfect groove and perfect time. He wasn’t flashy or show-offy; rather, Beard gave the music exactly what it needed rhythmically—nothing more and nothing less.
On keyboards and bass respectively, Mike Cassedy and Jamie Bishop (introduced by Dunnery as “Jamie the Pisces”) were similarly sympathetic and supportive to the star, strong and solid without being flashy. They closely watched their leader throughout the show—a sign of the newness of the band as well as how attuned to Dunnery they were. And while he indicated, self-effacingly, that this was a new situation and that the band would only get better with time, they were impressively solid and tight—I’d swear they’ve been together for a much longer time than two rehearsals. That’s what I call professional.
This was a great show. Dunnery is a consummate entertainer and musician, and he’s chosen the perfect band to bring his songs, new and old, to the people. I’m delighted I was able to see this Sensation Electric Band at its outset, and can’t wait to see how it develops in the future. I’d wholeheartedly recommend that you check them out at upcoming shows, as this band is only going to get more sensational over time.
For further information on Francis Dunnery and his Sensational Electric Band, go to FrancisDunnery.com