Concert Review: Francis Dunnery (Two Shows)

Edwin McCain, Francis Dunnery
Saratoga Winners (Cohoes, New York), November 14, 1995

If I count the four scary dudes in the lobby, the eight figures hunched over the bar, and the half-dozen amorphous humanoid shapes milling behind the stage, I could charitably report that seventy-five people heard Francis Dunnery and Edwin McCain perform at Saratoga Winners last Tuesday — this despite McCain sitting high on the sales charts with his album Honor Among Thieves and his single “Solitude”. Chalk up another victory for Albanian weather and torpor.

Dunnery (erstwhile It Bites and Robert Plant guitarist) began the evening inauspiciously with a battery failure in his Ovation’s electronics that precipitated ten minutes of equipment massaging and led me to brace myself for a long slow night at the roadhouse. Dunnery finally purloined McCain’s Washburn solid body, sang a nice little tune called “I Believe I Can Change My World” in a voice reminiscent of Paul Simon with a Cumbrian accent — then vaporized my nascent bad attitude with an unexpected guitar excursion blending Robert Fripp’s fractured virtuosity and Adrian Legg’s dulcet organic sprawl into an amazingly fresh jaw-slackening milieu. As if this shocking whirlwind of tempestuously ga-ga guitar wasn’t enough, Dunnery’s ensuing songs were engaging, joyous, and frank — painting a portrait of a beautifully flawed human being who came from peasant stock, grew up to “be seen with the idols of my teenage years”, then finally found some semblance of self-peace upon realizing that most of all he wanted to be someone just like himself. Himself is indeed one special fellow.

McCain’s drummer T.J. Hall recently suffered unfortunate tour-ending injuries, leading McCain to an unplanned acoustic set with reed/key man Craig Shields and bassist Scott Bannevich. McCain is a member in good standing of the burgeoning Earnest American Male Singer’s Club — which also claims acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, Live, and Toad the Wet Sprocket as charter members. Club rules require members to give every song and every subject the same anthemically sincere head-thrown-back, vein-popping vocal treatment — which on this night simply and frankly did not go down well. Just as I started to mentally craft a review fraught with adjectives like “gormless” and “lite”, however, McCain played his trump cards: he traded Shields for Dunnery and started playing other people’s songs. Shrewd moves, Edwin!

Dunnery donned his musical director’s mantle, forced McCain to stop emoting at the ceiling and make eye contact with his stage mates, and drove McCain and Bannevich into improvisations launched from springboards in the Hendrix and Blues Traveler catalogs. For thirty minutes, the trio played with admirable inspiration: McCain’s wordless earnestness was far more appealing than his wordy earnestness; Bannevich displayed technical agility not even hinted at during McCain’s “proper” songs; and Dunnery used his guitar as both drum and conductor’s baton as he shaped the improvisational textures.

Alas, the sparks died quickly when McCain returned to his own comfortable material. Hopefully, McCain will use his tour hiatus to reflect on and perhaps assimilate Dunnery’s tutelage — he could conceivably make a nice art statement to complement his commercial success if he replaced a bit of his strained perspiration with some of Dunnery’s strange inspiration.

Francis Dunnery
Valentine’s, Albany, New York, June 28, 1998)

Phil Spector, Lennon/McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Difford/Tilbrook, Brian Wilson, Chapman/Chinn, Francis Dunnery. What’s wrong with this list? Not one thing based on Dunnery’s Sunday night concert at Valentine’s, when the spirited, talented and charismatic singer-songwriter-guitarist demonstrated that his name belongs right up there near the top on the big roster of pop music’s all-time titans. Really, Francis Dunnery is that good.

After making a series of solo acoustic stops in the Capital Region over the past few years, Dunnery debuted a marvelous amplified trio for local listeners Sunday night, putting drummer Graham Hawthorne and bassist John Montagna through their paces during a set built around the highest high points from Dunnery’s latest recorded masterwork, Let’s Go Do What Happens, plus standards “Too Much Saturn” and “I Believe I Can Change My World” from his back catalog. Despite this focus on only one record’s material, Dunnery’s concert was as rich as any other contemporary performer’s greatest hits gig, as the songs contained on Let’s Go Do What Happens are unassailably, almost overwhelmingly strong — from both a musical and a lyrical standpoint. No kidding, Dunnery’s songs are that good.

While it’s pretty well impossible to synopsize his uplifting and deeply spiritual lyrics without making them sound treacly or sappy or smarmy, it’s Dunnery’s persistent presentation (in his music, in his stage banter, in the shine of his personality) of his thought-provoking core belief system that separates him from most of the pop pioneers who came before him. Think about it: “Good Vibrations” is one hell of a single, but did you learn anything when you heard it? Did it make you question some of your life’s underlying constructs? Did you want to go talk philosophy and theology with Brian Wilson when it was over? Not likely–whereas I’ll wager that every person in the room at Valentine’s on Sunday night left with their spiritual and intellectual batteries fully recharged, feeling ready to conquer the world (or at least their portion of it) when they rose the next day. No shit, the Dunnery message is that good.

Of course, the man, the songs and the messages could have only charged batteries so far if they weren’t matched by stellar concert performances. Fortunately, Dunnery, Hawthorne and Montagna offered such performances by the bucketful, with Dunnery demonstrating the guitar pyrotechnics which once earned him a slot as Robert Plant’s bandleader, Hawthorne mixing power and touch like some mad blend of Elvin Jones and John Bonham and Montagna supporting and uplifting Dunnery’s songs, instead of thumb-popping them into submission the way that most of today’s young Les Claypool- and Flea-inspired bass abusers would have. Honestly, the band was that good.

So did I mention that this was a good concert? If not, it was indeed that good. No really, I mean it. Really.

See Also: Interview With Francis Dunnery (1996)

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