By Hannah Means-Shannon
Emily Barker and Frank Turner presented “Barker-Turner Overdrive: An Evening of Duets” on Thursday, April 8th, streaming from The Forum in Tunbridge Wells, UK. They were joined by musical friends Matt Nasir, Lukas Drinkwater, Jess Guise, the quartet Carducci Strings, who were working with arrangements by Joe Duddell. The thirteen-song set was wide-ranging around the duet theme, taking in original songs by Barker, original songs by Turner, one song they co-wrote, and many well-known and celebrated duet showcases from Roots music, with a few from Rock ‘n Roll for good measure. For those pining for in-person live performances, they couldn’t have done much better than watch this show with all the chatter and banter of a small venue performance and the no-nonsense humor of making music live.
Both Barker and Turner have been working mainly on solo projects in recent years, with Turner’s latest album No Man’s Land released in August 2019 and with Barker’s latest, Flight Path Rhymes, arriving on April 30th, 2021. She’s been particularly busy, with a single “Machine” released in three versions in December 2020 and with full album A Dark Murmuration of Words released in September 2020. It was during the latter’s recording sessions that Barker and Turner collaborated and recorded the song “Bound for Home” though it was not included on the album. They did, however, feature it in the performance, playing it live together for the first time.
Barker and Turner have known each other since around 2006, as they explained as the set opened, making it 15 years of professional and personal friendship. And yet the two have never appeared in a full show together, nor focused on duets, which made the evening particularly memorable. To be fair, despite the popularity of many now historically famous duet performances and recordings in American Roots music, it’s not a format that typically gets a lot of live attention, even if 2020 saw more collaborations between artists on singles and EPs than we have seen in recent years. It’s a format more beloved than enacted, so it was particularly exciting to see Barker and Turner double down on expressing their admiration for vocally collaborative artists by actually showcasing some of those key performances and adding in their own, too.
Alongside “Bound for Home,” another rather special inclusion from Barker’s career was “Wheels and White Lines,” a song that she created for the British film Hector amid writing all the film’s music including three original songs and instrumentals drawn from their motifs, she explained. The film features a homeless man hitchhiking to London from Scotland and interacting with a wide swath of humanity. The song was particularly emotive, suggesting the casual way in which strangers can come into our lives, yet leave a lasting impact. Barker and Bird really showcased the unvarnished confessional nature of the song and, in all, it was probably the closest original song to Roots duet tradition included in the performance down to its emotional revelations.
The core of the performance pulled out the big guns of traditional powerhouse duets, though, and didn’t leave audiences pining for the classics. Early in the show, a George Jones and Tammy Wynette duet “Golden Ring” set the tone for the evening. As Turner pointed out, the song was written after Jones and Wynette broke up, context which only added weight to the lyrics that follow the full arc of a relationship from start to painfully reflective finish. There is a definite subset of Roots songs that focus on an object to tell a story, and what better than a wedding ring to pluck at the heartstrings? Even more so if it’s a duet with each party weighing in. There’s something that’s potentially heart-breaking in the power of the duet format anyway, perhaps due to its left hook and right hook capabilities, and this one pretty much set the standard.
The Johnny Cash and June Carter duets were, of course, a massively rewarding addition to the show, kicking off with Barker’s rather impressive harmonica parts on “Jackson” and building up the energy that Cash and Carter were known for in the pacing of their shows. The second Cash/Carter duet actually closed the event, and was the less famous, but very rewarding “We Can Work It Out” where both parties get plenty of opportunity to insult each other while arguing for inevitable reconciliation in humorous guise. That was a particularly strong choice for a finale because it teased out the importance of the format, again, for telling stories as only duets can, sometimes argumentative, sometimes demanding, always conveying that little bit more of a sense of justice in telling both sides of the story than a monolog can. Also add to that Barker and Turner both donning cowboy hats to close things out!
Some other highlights from the show included “Love Hurts” from Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris, “Something Going On,” harking back to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s performance, and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Whether Barker and Turner intended it to or not, those songs gave audiences an interesting tour of the ways in which the Country music duet format worked its way into R&B and the mainstream and even made its way into Rock. The biggest example of that reach and perhaps the least expected from the performance was “Under Pressure” where Barker performed “Freddie’s” part and Turner presented “David’s.” In the context of the concert, it was a salient reminder of just how unusual that song was at the time it was recorded, and still is, featuring two very different male vocals rather than sticking to a polarization of gender. As with many of these songs, Barker and Turner wove in Roots flourishes at moments when the song reaches iconic, perhaps overly well-known moments just to keep things fresh and make you think about the songs in new ways.
Original music worked into the evening also made for a strong show, reminding us of the musical and songwriting chops of both performers (and their incredibly versatile accompanying musicians) and suggesting ways in which the duet can take new forms in modern singer/songwriter compositions and even the ways in which they might be hidden in songs you might not normally think of as duets. Turner’s “Silent Key” suggested these possibilities, as well as Barker’s “Fields of June”. A particularly impactful moment, however, was the performance of “Bound For Home”. Whether it was because Barker and Turner wrote it together or because they haven’t played it live together before, the song sounded as pitch perfect and polished as an album track with all the extra energy afforded by a live performance, including a discussion of the song’s origins in Barker’s homesickness for Australia and in Turner’s commiseration with a powerful Clive James poem. https://www.emilybarker.com