After last year’s sell-out gigs and this year’s brand new album drop, the highly anticipated gig with Francis Dunnery and It Bites FD at London’s Islington Assembly Hall was the hottest and most prog-ist ticket in town.
Francis Dunnery – It Bites FD
Islington Assembly Hall – 21 January 2024
Words: Sara Harding
Photography: Eric Duvet
The buzz about the return of It Bites is clear. Fans headed into this highly anticipated gig celebrating the long-awaited first album from It Bites FD, these British prog-rock pioneers. I stood next to some very excited dudes who had come all the way from Norway, the USA and Scotland just to experience this band.
The rock royalty of music journalists were all very excited to be there. Even Steve Wilson and Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant came along to enjoy the UK shows.
It Bites is back, live and loud, at this stunning and sold-out venue. As founder member and frontman Francis Dunnery walks into the spotlight, the atmosphere is truly electric. Fans, old and new, have gathered to hear the anthems, deep cuts and some exclusives from the upcoming first It Bites FD studio album, Return To Natural.
As always, the very sweary, self-deprecating and fucking funny Francis has us laughing with his intros and asides to the crowd. “This is from our new album, all in analogue. Please buy some merch and CDs, as I’ve got fucking kids to feed. It’s great to be back here in London – I thought we’d only sold fifty fucking tickets,” he says to the sell-out crowd.
The show kicks off with Black December, an It Bites classic from 1988’s second studio album Once Around The World, and it is goosebumps time. To hear these anthems once again is just amazing. As a teenage girl, I used to follow It Bites around the UK with my posse of girl fans as we were all in awe of Francis. I had such a girl crush on John Beck. Not only were the original band easy on the eye, they were easy on the ear, too, as we became huge lovers of their epic anthems.
It Bites Mark III is a tour de force of talent. Dunnery has put together a cracking band for this set of British gigs. The five-piece wall of prog noise is polished and layered to perfection. With only two days of rehearsal, the band impressively hit this UK tour running.
As an avid air keyboard player, I was very impressed with Tony Turrell’s keys set up – with one organ even tilted to face us in the audience. His keys and duals with Dunnery are simply dynamic. What a recruit.
Next on the setlist is Till The End of Time – an absolute classic from third album Eat Me In St Louis (CD/cassette version only). Kicking off with Dunnery’s prowess on the guitar, this is is an upbeat slice of prog perfection. God it’s good to hear these songs live again.
Fast forward to the now as Frankie fills us in on the new It Bites LP Return To Natural. The five-piece launch into Magdalena is a brand-new track. It’s a blinder true to the It Bites DNA but with a modern proggy vibe. Dunnery’s guitar chops vs sticksman Chad’s beats is a prog mash up like no other I’ve seen. This song was so good that I rushed to the merch desk and bought the CD from Dunnery’s very glamorous merchandise team.
As the song ended with rapturous applause, we were introduced to Chad Wackerman of Frank Zappa fame. Francis says, “I was looking for a drummer in the UK just like Chad but couldn’t find one. So I phoned Chad and asked him to join us. He said he would only do it if we renamed the band Chad Sabbath,” With his drum kit pushed right up front and to the side we have a birds eye view of his drumming skills and they are off the chart.
Then it’s back in time to Midnight, packed with trademark guitar/keyboard duals, complex time changes, four-part harmonies and Dunnery’s off-the-wall lyrics, vocal style and guitar chops. It was time to give a huge nod to bassist Paul Brown and guitar/vocalist Todd Edwards, who was absolutely on point with backing vocals.
We are treated to another song from the new album, Out Of Order, which is a tribute to Dunnery’s late brother. A heavy prog sound with grinding guitars into soft melodious chords. Often, it’s hard to impress a crowd with a brand-new track, but this was an instant hit for all of us. We quickly picked up the chorus.
Next, the band went semi-acoustic with Whole New World. Stripped down and sublime, this is a chance to sing along at the top of our voices. I was very impressed with Prog Editor Jerry Ewing’s bass tone on this one. Francis, if you ever need more BVs, think of us. As this very classy song comes to a soft end, Dunnery once again lifts us by telling us he’s a fat bastard and we all look like the cast of Thriller.
At 61 years old, Dunnery is still pitch-perfect, and his voice stands out in this version of Cold Tired And Hungry, which was our second visit to the debut album, The Big Lad In The Windmill. Frankie’s voice is still so mesmerising! There are no drums in this version, but with chiming keyboards and an acoustic guitar solo, it brings a whole new dimension to the set.
Now it was time for another anthem, one of my all-time favourite songs, Ice Melts Into Water. As it’s announced, I turn to my fellow journalists and say, “Right, I’m off to the front to cry.” But it was happy tears as I melded in with fellow fans and got lost in the moment. There were big-ass grown men arm around arm, and the unity in music was spinetingling.
It’s back in time for another song with another lady’s name. This time, it’s Rose Marie (Although I do think Sister Sarah should have been on the setlist, then I could say it was after me!). A fast-paced, uplifting track, Dunnery stuns with a double-hand guitar finger solo. And those backing vocals from Todd delivered big style.
Dunnery thanks the band in his own inimitable style, thanking Tony for pressing buttons and Todd for being Welsh and a pin-up, making us all laugh.
Next up is another tune from the IB back catalogue, Vampires. Crazy, bonkers, key change craziness and sheer brilliance. This is the longest song of the night and takes us on a prog journey like no other. An often overlooked song, I had forgotten just how good this is. A high-energy drum solo from Chad that is off the prog hook with all the band playing around him and towards him, switching tempo. Then there’s Drums v Guitar!! Brilliantly bonkers and mind-blowing.
Our penultimate deep cut is next on this stellar setlist, Murder Of The Planet Earth and a song that truly stands the test of time as young proggers and old are in the crowd. And unlike the last IB gig, there were loads of us women folk, too.
And then, sadly, it’s encore time, and the show ends with an absolute prog banger, Yellow Christian. What a way to finish with a brilliantly crafted song with so much meaning. How can you not sing along to this belter of an anthem?
If we weren’t all standing already, this was standing ovation time as Francis and Co came in front of the stage to one of the biggest applauses the Assembly Rooms has probably ever had.
On a high, I popped backstage to see Francis for a cup of tea, and I even helped myself to a couple of chocolate digestives. The whole band and crew were buzzing. I even made Dunnery laugh by saying I needed Tena lady for that gig. I begged him to come back, but this time in summer rather than on a stormy January night. Plus, we can even take in a cheeky game of footy at my beloved Brentford FC.
Selfishly, there are a few songs I still need to hear live again – Old Man And The Angel, Kiss Like Judas and Sister Sarah, obviously.
After 38 years (thank god for Botox), It Bites are my go-to band if I’ve either had a great day or a rubbish time. There is nothing like putting on their videos and singing along. If my teenage self had known that I would be hanging out backstage with my prog hero, Francis Dunnery, in 2024, my mind would have been blown.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the superb support from John Young, who warmed us up nicely for It Bites. Young stunned us with a solo set – just vox and keys – a testament to his incredible career with Asia, Paul Rogers and Bonnie Tyler. This gave us a seriously great insight into what to expect with the upcoming fourth Lifesigns album.
Huge thanks to Phil Beaumont, Liz Fechner Reed and Stewart Savage.