August 23, 2023

Their modus operandi, and one which Franck has tenaciously made his mission in life for years now, is quite simply to give people entertainment, give them pleasure and leave them with a smile on their faces. And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong with that.

PHOTOS: Andy Cowley

There are some odd places that I’ve found myself travelling to for gigs over the past 47 years of regular attending. Basement clubs, pubs so small that one of the band had to stand on the floor next to the stage, a rugby ground with the bands sharing stage time with soap opera stars doing variety ‘turns’, and even a building with two venues sharing the space, so that I watched the support band before realising I was in the wrong place and watching the wrong band, and had to hastily relocate. I have never before, however, found myself watching a band in a tent in the courtyard of a decommissioned coastal fort, yet here we find ourselves. Fort Perch Rock is (as Frazer would have put it in Dad’s Army), ‘a wild and lonely place’, situated as it is right on the northernmost tip of the Wirral peninsula, and on the evidence of this particular evening, prey to weather conditions which might have made Captain Oates utter ‘I’m going outside now, I may be some time… oh dammit, I’m not going out in this!’ Just across the road 150 yards or so away, and yet seemingly in another, balmier country, lies the more genteel Floral Pavilion venue, but it might as well be miles inland for the difference in perception. Still, it’s all part of the habitual gig-goer’s rich tapestry, and it makes for a story to tell.

Some bands might wilt in the face of the gale force wind and driving rain which threatens to pluck the marquee/tent structure within which we cower out of the courtyard entirely and deposit it into the Irish Sea. Not so Franck Carducci and his loyal Fantastic Squad who, as anyone who has seen them play will attest, could make the Monday morning recycling collection into an event worth photographing and calling for an encore. Their modus operandi, and one which Franck has tenaciously made his mission in life for years now, is quite simply to give people entertainment, give them pleasure and leave them with a smile on their faces. And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong with that. As mission statements go, ‘put on a real show and entertain the crowd’ is one of the finest you could ask for in what is, after all, ‘show’ business.

I have to confess that it has always baffled me as to why bands started (around the early ’80s in the main) to take to the stage soberly dressed in suits or at least jackets and sensible trousers. No hiding at the back, King Crimson, I’m looking at you. And it hasn’t stopped yet, with Joe Bonamassa just one of the latest crop to do the same thing. You see, I have always believed in the simple principle of dressing for the occasion. If ever I have a meeting with a financial advisor or such like, I don’t tend to expect him to enter the room resplendent in seven-inch platform boots, a sparkly purple jacket with huge musical notes on the lapels and a large pair of Elton John glasses in the shape of stars. And to their credit, these gentlemen have rarely proved me wrong. By the same token I don’t go to a gig to see a group of sensibly shorn men in nice white shirts and ties looking as if they require directions to the Rotary Club. It’s an event, it’s a show, put one on. And that, in absolute spades, is what The Fantastic Squad do.

Not that this show is any sort of empty gesture of style over substance – one listen to any of the albums Franck has fronted will leave one in no doubt at all that their playing, songwriting and general musical quality is top of the tree. Torn Apart and The Answer in particular are tremendous records, but the live arena is where the magic truly lies for these guys, not only for the effort put into the show, but also from the sheer joy in performing which emanates from each and every one. This isn’t Roger Waters strolling onto a huge stage and grimly informing everyone that life is dreadful, the human race is doomed, and going on to demonstrate exactly why. On the contrary, this is a life-affirming show which should leave anyone who is not recently deceased with a broad smile within the first minutes. There’s glitter here. There’s glam, there’s butterfly wings, and there’s double-neck guitars. There are laser gloves and mirrorball breasts combining for the most surreal light show you’ve ever seen. There’s a top hat, of course. There’s a sort of impromptu conga onstage and a series of rock star shapes and synchronised movements so splendidly over the top that you’ll wonder why people haven’t been doing this for all of these years. And behind it, crucially, there is a band so well-drilled via constant touring, and so tight, that they can perform like this without letting the music suffer one single jot.

A lot of the band’s favourites are present and correct of course. There’s the legendary Alice’s Eerie Dream (a piece of rock theatre of which Alex Harvey would be proud), there’s Slave To Rock And Roll, there’s A Brief Tale Of Time and there’s Torn Apart. There are newer songs as well: The Betrayal Of Blue (unrecorded in the studio but a highlight of last years The Answer tour), Sweet Cassandra and Love Or Survive. Of course, there is Mary Reynaud’s own set-piece The Angel (without the stunning ‘angel wings’ owing to the small stage, but making up for it in terms of visual impact with her astonishing laser display), and the brilliant take on Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy Of Gold, with Mary once again taking centre stage, vocalising to stunning effect. Hell, there’s even room for the closing section of Free Bird to be bolted on at one point, with guitarist Barth Sky delivering the Skynyrd twin-guitar goods on his own, and loving it. Drummer Lea Fernandez continues to confound expectations as she dons butterfly wings, has an expression of pure joy, uses a relatively small kit and yet hits it like John Bonham in a bad mood!

Owing to a severe mechanical malfunction just before the UK dates, keyboard man Cedric Selzer has had to beg and borrow equipment to use on each date, and with part of tonight’s keyboard setup having been provided by an audience member, the lady in question – who is also visually impaired – is invited up by the band to sing with them on a blazing romp through Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll – and she does so with considerable aplomb.

There is even room for a spectacular bonus tonight as, during Alice’s Eerie Dream, Franck and Mary head off the stage and through the crowd (leaving the band playing), climb up to the fort’s observation platform in hideously wet and windy conditions, and celebrate with the crowd as fireworks burst into the sky behind them. One false move or gust of wind and their next appearance would have been in the Irish sea being rescued by lifeboat, but the show must go on and it does, as they return to terra firma and back to the stage. That’s the sort of thing you can expect at a Franck Carducci show – namely, the absolutely unexpected!

I first encountered Franck a decade or so ago, with his band performing a show for us at the Classic Rock Society – I’d been unaware of him before that evening, but like several people in attendance I was blown away by the way the band took a small venue by the scruff of the neck. They returned several times, and each time more would turn up, having been at the previous appearance and been so impressed. That’s how it is at a Franck Carducci show – talk to audience members and you’ll be guaranteed to get a series of responses along the lines of ‘I first saw them at (insert venue and year here) and was absolutely knocked out and I’ve been a fan ever since’. And it’s no mystery as to why – get along to a Franck Carducci show next time there is one near enough to you (and there will be one, the band gig relentlessly), and you too can prepare to become a Slave To Rock And Roll. Resistance, as someone once said, is futile. You will be assimilated.