I had seen Francis Dunnery’s name mentioned always with high praise, but hadn’t listened to any of his music. A week prior, a friend mentioned a house concert being hosted by a guy named Ray Heffernan. Bak in ‘95, I had organized a similar event for the pianist Patrick Moraz at a townhouse on West 10th Street in Manhattan. Ray, a restauranteur who moonlights in the music industry had put together a private show for Francis Dunnery a year ago in his beautiful 1864-built Harvard Avenue Staten Island home. He and his wife Maureen would never think of moving from their historic house. Every wall is lined with artwork, photographs, and family pictures. Those walls have many stories to tell.
Dunnery, in line with a minority of respectable non-mainstream artists, has essentially turned his back on the music industry, having been cast out of what he calls the comforts of The Golden Castle years ago. Since 2002, he has run his own label called Aquarian Nation and accepts invitations for private shows where he can temper the atmosphere and flow of an evening to his liking. The result for Dunnery is what he hopes is a mutual dialog where everyone ends up in the jacuzzi–his metaphor for the reward of a wholly satisfying night of song and words.
The album he was touring–The Gully Flats Boys–is a true coming of age essay with themes that recount his Irish Catholic childhood in the northern UK, or lament the death of his father, or reflect his coming of age as a man at mid-life, the middle passage. Dunnery’s voice hints at a Gabrielesque tenor, but at times he offers a sound reminiscent of Dewey Bunnell of the group America on a track such as “Soldier.” The lyrics though are entirely his–distinctly reflective of a life growing up in Egremont, North England to leaving the boy-child behind in later years.
On this evening, June 27, 2007, about thirty-five guests nestled in tightly. Dunnery took a front corner of the salon-style room and delivered perfectly-intoned vocals which at moments were just above a whisper. With both voice and acoustic guitar unamplified, he offered an intimate performance that everyone soaked in attentively.
Less than a year later, Dunnery returned for round three at the Heffernan house on March 1, 2008, his third go-round on Staten Island. This time he featured tracks from his Tall Blonde Helicopter record from 1995. It deals with Dunnery’s transition from major label rock stardom with his band It Bites to that of a solo artist/touring axe man and subsequent casualty of Atlantic Records. During this period he worked through his new sobriety in light of vocation and marriage; both were crumbling before him but he was in fact discovering a man with other intentions—a man facing the reality of his craft, personal relationships, and his past.
Dunnery sang and played guitar, interweaving stories throughout the set. One of his more engaging metaphors which got the biggest laughs was that everyone is carrying a big bag of shit with them throughout their lives full of dysfunction, inadequacies, and hurt, and when we meet someone knew, we essentially drop the bag and say, “here, have a look at this!”