The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band, Club Academy, Manchester

by Steve Rhodes Rating: Release Date:

Right, if you're going to call your band 'sensational' you better bloody be true to your word. Francis Dunnery, the former singer and lead guitarist of 80s Cumbrians It Bites, re-visited his distant past with an album of re-recorded and re-imagined tracks, released as Vampires last year. After a successful couple of dates in Japan, Francis has returned to his homeland with a short tour, promoting the album and Manchester is the first date. And damn doesn't he just live up to his promise, with sensational perhaps not even a strong enough description of tonight's performance.

There is a fervent atmosphere amongst the audience, perhaps helped by Francis whipping up his fan-base on social media in the days before tonight's gig, summed up by the reaction of the packed audience as Francis and his band appear, which is almost deafening. Launching into 'I Got You Eating Of My Hand', perhaps the most conventional track of the night, despite still containing some unusual time signatures, the sound that propels from stage is full and loud, instantly connecting with the crowd and lifting their expectation into another dimension. Fan favourite 'Yellow Christian' follows with the audience singing along in unison while being serenaded by Francis' vocals, which are spread neatly across the spectrum of tender vulnerability and all out rock and his masterful and intricate guitar skills.

Though Francis' guitar is the star of the show it wouldn't work without the phenomenal backing of his band. Mike Cassedy's synths and keys are lush, playful and emotional at varying times during the night, Brett Kull's keys and guitar, but especially his backing vocals, provide a beautiful high-end counterpoint to Francis, but it's the complex, powerful and telepathic synchronicity of the rhythm section with Paul Brown's bass and Tony Beard's drumming, that propels the band along, allowing Francis free reign to be a born front-man.

Anyone who has seen Francis live knows it's never going to be ordinary gig and the band excel themselves tonight, with Francis' entertaining meanderings between songs, with no filter on his brash tone and language. His mischievous side is quickly revealed by forcing the band to dress up in capes, masks and 'glamming up' Tony and announcing a 'very special guest appearance' from Peter Gabriel before 'Screaming On The Beaches' as Clayton Hopkins from support Clayton Ellis appears in a Genesis Foxtrot era mask and red outfit. The gig takes an odd turn during the same track as Brett appears to be talking on a mobile phone as the band continues to play, a moment that echoes the surrealness of Cardiacs or Of Montreal.

Audience participation is taken to a new level as members are invited on stage to add their singing prowess to 'Underneath Your Pillow', 'Vampires' and 'Old Man And The Angel', which all do with enthusiasm and aplomb, with the latter made especially memorable as two short female audience singers are accompanied by one tall male singer, which visually recalls memories of the infamous duo of Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox.

Though the set pushes through the two and half hour mark it never feels drawn out, with the crowd treated to the perhaps the strongest Francis Dunnery performance for many years. A rare live appearance of the big hit 'Calling All The Heroes', gorgeous synths during the tender 'Never Get To Heaven', the ferociously rocking 'Vampires' and the daddy of them all, the prog-tastic, shape-shifting and ridiculously complex 'Once Around The World', along with every other track tonight. are all lapped up by a devoted audience bordering on the messianic. But it's 'The Ice Melts Into Water' with its shimmering keys and high-end fret-less bass that's the star of the show, with Francis' vocals at its most vulnerable, that sends a chill down the spine.

With the sing-along anthem 'Still To Young To Remember' closing the show, we have been treated to something special this evening. A terrific performance by a tight and powerful band, led by the perfect showman.

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