Bush Hall, London
Sunday, 22nd January 2023
Like Father Christmas, it appears that Francis Dunnery’s It Bites only come once a year, and there was a special atmosphere in the sold out Bush Hall. This lovely venue was packed out with It Bites faithful to see their main man on one of his usually annual set of a few January gigs around the UK, re-living the glories and joys of yesteryear. The previous three mini-tours have seen Francis re-interpreting whole It Bites albums, with Eat Me in St. Louis in 2018, their debut album Big Lad in the Windmill in 2019 and the rather more progressive Once Around the World in 2020 (indeed that was the last gig I saw before the pandemic put a stop to all that for a couple of years, so I have fond memories of that experience… some of us didn’t realise just how sweet live music is until you cannot experience it). This tour was not going to focus on one album and promised to be a ‘Best of It Bites’ night.
Before anyone asks, this is not the manifestation of It Bites that John Beck and Bob Dalton re-constituted to great effect with John Mitchell in the 2000s – this is FRANCIS DUNNERY very much front and centre, surrounding himself with a very talented band. Luke Machin of The Tangent and Cyan, amongst others, dazzles on electric guitar alongside his fellow Cyan bandmate, the multi-talented Peter Jones, also of Tiger Moth Tales and Camel, on keyboards. Francis certainly knows talent when he sees it.
All in Red from the debut album ignites the set in very energetic fashion, and it becomes clear to this unsuspecting reviewer who had arrived early and secured a front row position that he was now amidst the most committed It Bites aficionados who knew and sang every word, passionately enjoying the gig – it was going to be quite a ride! Francis had modestly billed the tour ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and announced it as such, proclaiming it as a ‘Celebration’ with his usual ebullient, confident nature. The band ripped through fluid, rocking versions of songs from right across the catalogue, interspersing them with some irreverent banter and humour. Francis stated that all we really needed was ‘Love and Nature’ (hard to argue with that really) and then asked Pete Jones to play the intro to Sister Sarah (from their 1989 album Eat Me in St. Louis) with some ‘Northern Love’ before the song erupted into a crunching rock scene. The eccentric banter continued from Francis who explained that when the band first emerged people were asking what influenced them? Was it literature or Shakespeare? But he said their influences were ‘Tony Cannabis and Teddy Mushrooms’… which may explain something!?
Plastic Dreamer from my fave It Bites album, 1988’s Once Around the World, was brilliantly portrayed with an almost Alice in Wonderland or Beatles-style whimsy to this rather hallucinogenic song… and soon after rather randomly and with no explanation a gorilla walked on to the stage to give Francis a bottle of water. Of course it did!
The wonderful extended version of Old Man and the Angel from the same album soon followed, featuring a tasteful, subtle guitar solo in the middle followed by some wonderful cascading play in the latter section from Dunnery, who certainly knows his way around a fretboard. Apparently, we can thank Luke Machin for the presence of this excellent piece, which Francis jokingly said was ‘too complex’ but Luke said the fans would expect it… Luke was right – thanks! The interesting thing about these cracking rock songs is that they still sound fresh and vibrant now, especially in the hands of this great band. It is pleasing to hear that the gigs were recorded for a live release in future.
Francis Dunnery showed his versatility with an acoustic section sat behind a Tap Board, also encouraged by Luke Machin who appears to want to stretch his band leader! A beautiful and seemingly faultless acoustic version of Charlie is played soulfully by Dunnery, dedicating the song to his father, subtly supported by Bjorn Fryklund and Paul Brown on drums and bass. The next part of the gig is more playful as Dunnery engages in reminiscing on acoustic guitar about songs by Leo Sayer and Terry Jacks… and even Donny Osmond!
He then rather comically and also touchingly pays tribute to Pete Jones, who has announced this is his last gig with Francis’ It Bites. Dunnery announces his disappointment that ‘Pete’s left us for a Camel’ but they have written a farewell song for him called Taliban Roundabout, which included references to Yes songs like And You And I. Despite the humour there seems some genuine sadness for Dunnery that Jones is leaving and he shares that Pete really has enriched his life. Pete Jones certainly enriches this band with his great keyboard playing and singing and will be a hard act to follow for whomever Dunnery manages to recruit next.
More comedy ensues when Luke Machin jokingly messes up an electric guitar solo so Dunnery calls for a mask. A roadie fetches a bizarre black mask with blue fluorescent features and places it on Machin’s face… who then proceeds to reel off a face shreddingly brilliant solo!
This enjoyable gig rolls along with a selection from all of the first three It Bites albums with Dunnery, especially outstanding versions of Hunting the Whale, including great keyboard play by Jones, and the ear-wormingly brilliant pop rock song which feels and sounds like it should have been a massive hit, Kiss Like Judas. That great song has the whole venue singing along. Needless to say, their biggest hit Calling all the Heroes has the place in joyous uproar and everyone joins in with the anthemic Still Too Young to Remember… although ironically maybe some of us are now getting too old to remember!
For the encore we are treated to a wonderful epic version of the peculiar, idiosyncratic and brilliant Once Around the World, which is a fabulous way to finish the night. There was a point on my journey up to London for this gig on a cold, dank January day when I thought ‘Is it really worth all this time, effort and expense?’… Well, I can tell you, it took about 30 seconds of the first song All in Red when the adrenalin and excitement surged through the venue and I just thought ‘Yep, that’s why I still go to these gigs!’
Live music, eh? Best fun you can have with your clothes on.
All in Red
Underneath Your Pillow
Old Man and the Angel
– ‘Taliban Roundabout’ (comic tribute farewell to Pete Jones)
Hunting the Whale
Turn Me Loose
Leaving Without You
People of America
Screaming on the Beaches
Kiss Like Judas
Calling All the Heroes
Still Too Young to Remember
Once Around the World
Francis Dunnery – Lead Vocals, Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Tap Board
Pete Jones – Keyboards, Vocals
Luke Machin – Electric Guitars, Backing Vocals
Paul Brown – Bass Guitar
Bjorn Fryklund – Drums
Quint Starkie – Backing Vocals, Additional Keyboards