By John Barlass
The appearance of Show of Hands at the magnificent Birmingham town Hall is a virtual fixture on the itinerary of the band’s annual autumn tour. Sadly, for this year’s show, the hall was only two-thirds full, with punters possibly lured away by the attractions of the German Christmas Market taking place in Victoria Square, just outside the hall. If you were one of those who preferred the Gluhwein to the songs from the tin mine, then you missed a treat!
This year’s tour is billed as the ‘Now We Are Four’ tour, a reference to the newly augmented lineup of the band. Steve Knightley and Phil Beer continue to form the band’s core and, happily, Miranda Sykes has returned from a two-year absence after bringing her baby Wilf into the world. Her sublime bass playing and angelic voice bring so much to the live Show of Hands sound and it’s great to be able to welcome her back. The four-piece lineup is completed by percussionist Cormac Byrne and his masterful contributions on bodhran, cajon and assorted cymbals and the overall effect is stunning.
Besides launching the enhanced band lineup, the tour is also being used to showpiece the new Show of Hands album, Battlefield Dance Floor, a work which references the widest possible range of musical genres (including country and western, music hall, power ballads and reggae alongside the expected folk) all delivered in the unique Show Of Hands style. In my opinion, it’s possibly their best ever album.
For the first half of the show, the band, in an imaginative twist, presented itself as its own support act. The opening number was an awesome version of the traditional ballad Blackwaterside and the set-closer was You’ll Get By from the new album; an appetiser for what was to come in the second half of the show. Sandwiched between these numbers, the band paired off for a series of songs and tunes during which each band member played, as a duo, with each other band member and we were able to relish the musical talents of each of the individual members.
The full band took the stage for the second half of the performance and after the set opener, Haunt You, from the 2012 Wake the Union album, the band got down to showing off their new repertoire. Eight of the thirteen tracks on the Battlefield Dance Floor album were featured in the set and the strength of (and the band’s faith in) the new material was made evident by the fact that the setlist was far less dependent upon the inclusion of a long string of the ‘hits’ that are usually included. Particularly poignant was the dedication of the song Next Best Western to Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, who sadly passed away in October of this year.
The entertainment value of the show was further enriched by the band’s between-song banter – apparently rehearsed but presented in a suitably ad-libbed way. Steve’s ‘referendum’ on the correct order to construct a Devon Cream Tea generated the same split loyalties as that other, equally pointless, referendum, and when Phil’s growing likeness to Father Jack was pointed out, each band member assumed a ‘Father Ted’ character of his or her own.
Although the hits didn’t feature as strongly in this year’s set, there was still room for a few of the classics, including a slowed-down version of Country Life to which Steve added colour by relating the song’s background story, lusty versions of Cousin Jack and Galway Farmer and a brilliant version of Santiago – probably my favourite Show Of Hands number – which featured a breathtaking charango solo from Phil and during the chorus which the audience almost raised the Town Hall roof.
The tour still has a few dates to run, with shows to come in Cheltenham, Lincoln and Leicester before it concludes with a run of concerts at the band’s “home” venue, the Exmouth Pavilion, in early December. There’s also a Christmas show scheduled at the excellent Electric Palace in Bridport on 21 December.
If you have the chance, I strongly recommend that you try to get one of these shows. If you can’t, then please do check out the “Battlefield Dance Floor” album – you won’t be disappointed. On second thoughts, why not check out the album AND get to one of the shows!
All words and images by John Barlass.
You can read our review of Battlefield Dance Floor here.