I am a huge Francis Dunnery fan – and he certainly keeps us rock journos on our toes with his huge and epic range of music and live gigs. Over the past forty years, Francis has written, produced and performed with some of the greatest artists of our generation. And this year, we will be getting double Frankie as he travels over from his HQ in the USA with his Tombstone Blues Project. Then there’s the It Bites tour, already selling out for January. More about that later, as it’s time to get our Blues on.
Interview: Sara Harding
Dunnery is no stranger to the blues, having played guitar with the legendary Led Zep frontman Robert Plant. “I basically got my blues education from Robert Plant,” Francis says. “He was always telling me ‘listen to this artist or that from Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins to BB King. There is nothing Plant doesn’t know about the Blues.”
Francis continues, “We were sitting around. I was wearing a massive black hat, and we came up with the name Tombstone Dunnery. What a fuckin’ brilliant name for an act. I can’t wait to just play with this band and play traditional blues. I can sit back and just be the musician. I’ve teamed up with some amazing musicians for the tour and the album. I just love BB King, and his guitar playing is emotive, and from one note, a story can be told.”
This latest chapter in Dunnery’s long and diverse career will see him bring his trademark songwriting and guitar skills to the forefront of the blues genre. I’ve already got my ticket at the iconic Nells in London for The Tombstone Dunnery tour, which kicks off next month in the UK and will be followed by an album. Francis has been working hard on the setlist and will be debuting his slide guitar chops. “It’s really fucking difficult to play slide,” he laughs. But master it, he will.
Dunnery plays in all kinds of venues, from stadiums to arenas, to iconic local halls and even our houses. My first experience of one of these house gigs was at my late, great friend Geoff Banks”s suburban pad, and it was actually in a kitchen. There were 30 of us packed into his gaff, and I was leaning on the fridge to get a better view.
These gigs are so intense and intimate, with a mix of wise words, amazing anecdotes and songs from Dunnery spanning his career. It’s music and mentorship. It was a unique experience for me to see one of my prog heroes playing a stellar setlist in such a small space. “I love playing these house gigs,” he says. “There is nothing more intimate, and I do different sets from astrology to Tall Blonde Helicopter.”
The next house gig I went to was in a very posh living room hosted by my dear friend Stewart Savage. I love astrology, and this was the show for me. As Francis went through the star signs, we all took away something personal. He connected with us all through music, and as a Gemini, he gave me some life-changing advice. I can recommend it if you ever want to go to one or even host a house concert. Plus, you get to look at other people’s cribs! I’d love to host one myself, but I don’t think my flat would fit us bodacious rock journo’s.
And soooooo to It Bites. They are still a tour de force and as relevant now as back in the ’80s when we used to stalk them as teenagers in Reading. “We only get three days to rehearse for this It Bites tour,” Francis says. “Those songs are so fucking hard to play,” he laughs, “but I love to perform these songs, and when we play them live, the whole audience does the backing vocals.”
The number of times I’ve seen It Bites and sang along at the top of my voice with John Beck (as well as playing air keyboard). The other night as I was prepping for this interview, I listened to the It Bites back catalogue, enjoying it so much I was up pretty much all night, and those songs are still my earworms 40 years later.
“We all lived together, played together, wrote these songs and had no fucking money,” Francis says. This may well have been the case, but the legacy this band left has never been filled. “I call this tour a celebration of It Bites,” Francis adds.
The London gig is already sold out, so plenty of us will jump on a train and head to the Midlands. Maybe my boss Sir Lenny Henry can get me a cheap deal at the Premier inn?
So what”s in the stars for Francis Dunnery, I ask? “I’m just going to continue being me and playing music. I’m nearly fucking 60, and I just want to be a musician in a band.”
So as the interview draws to a close, we talked so much we didn’t even get to chat about footy. I love Frankie’s philosophies – I could just listen to him all day. And I love Frankie’s music. I could listen to him play all night.
Get your tickets now, and if you host a house gig, please invite me – I’ll even make the tea.
For Tombstone Dunnery tickets for November 2022 dates, visit https://francisdunnery.com/concerts/
Tombstone Dunnery features Francis Dunnery on guitar and vocals, Paul Brown on Bass, Quint Starkie on guitar and Phil Beaumont on drums. “We will be playing eight gigs before recording the album to get the songs settled in,” Francis says. “I hope you come support us at a blues venue near you.”
Wednesday 16th November – The Old Fire Station – Carlisle
Thursday 17th November – The Flowerpot – Derby
Friday 18th November – Brownie’s Bar – Bolton
Saturday 19th November – Trading Boundaries – Fletching, East Sussex
Sunday 20th November – The Lowther Pavillion – Lytham St Annes
Monday 21st November – Nell’s, London
Tuesday 22nd November – Barnoldswick Music and Arts Centre
Wednesday 23rd November – Hermon Arts – Oswestry