Show Of Hands are back – this time with a twist!
Well – It was billed as The Dog Show Sessions, but that title really didn’t go anywhere close to describing the delights to be enjoyed when folk legends Show of Hands teamed up with those International Madrileños, and At The Barrier faves, Track Dogs. Show of Hands are, of course, guaranteed to bring the house down wherever and whenever they play. Normally the sweet seasoning to Steve and Phil’s heady mix of West Country folk-with-a-message is provided by Miranda Sykes with her double bass and delightful vocals – but Miranda’s away on maternity leave at the moment (and we send her our very best wishes) and the male 67% of the organisation have taken the opportunity to try something very different indeed.
Track Dogs will be no strangers to regular browsers of these pages. Back in March, we raved about their current album, the triumphant Where to Now? – a wonderful mélange of Irish folk, Americana, bluegrass and Dixieland jazz and greeted the news that they would be joining Show of Hands on their Spring Tour with excitement and huge enthusiasm. What we didn’t realise at the time, was that Track Dogs would be much, much more than a mere support act – they would be fully integrated into the show too, as it’s been described, “spread their sun-soaked Latin rhythms all over Steve and Phil’s West Country heartbeat ” to spice up those songs that we all know and love so much.
To start with, it was ‘business as usual’. Steve and Phil took the stage and delivered a fairly laid-back version of Country Life. Well – I say laid-back, but Steve can never hide his passion when he sings this lament to the erosion of the traditional Cornish way of life, and that passion whipped the audience into an early bout of frenzy, as we were urged to sing along to the wordless chorus. The guys demonstrated that their vocal pipes had been undiminished by COVID as they harmonised sweetly on Peter Gabriel’s Secret World, before Steve introduced the evening’s new song – the evocative The Winter Yards. Inspired by the “Harry and Harry Jnr” fairground storage yard, just outside Exeter, the song relates how lockdown devastated the traveling fairground business, as rides and stalls had to be packed up and stored for the duration. Phil’s violin accompaniment was marvelous, and Steve delivered a sublime vocal, as the song reached its happy conclusion “Everyone’s a winner on that sweet day when we welcome back the rides!”
Then the fun REALLY began. Track Dogs were introduced and they wasted no time in getting down to business. Howard Brown’s Mariachi trumpet was the perfect fit for Columbus (Didn’t Find America) and the backing vocals were fantastic. Up until this point, I suspect that I wasn’t alone in wondering what the suspension microphone that had been placed front centre-stage was for – here’s where we found out. Steve and Phil left Track Dogs to it, as they clustered around the mic for a wonderful version of Where To Now? – the title track from their new album. Next came the passionate, soulful, Less Than Equal, before Track Dogs completed their first “set within a set” with their rousing, joyful take on James Taylor’s Going To Carolina. The band is clearly very pleased that the great JT himself has given their version the thumbs up, and, as I remarked back in March when I reviewed the album, that’s a well-deserved seal of approval.
Track Dogs are certainly enjoying their time on the road with Show Of Hands, and I loved the way that they adapted their stage banter to suit the location. Whitby is, of course, famed for its fish and chips, and we were asked if we’d all had ours (most of us had!) and their interpretations of the meanings of local road signs – they’d come across a Blind “Summat” and wondered whether the “Hidden Dip” they were warned about on the road from Middlesbrough to Whitby referred to a secret store of guacamole – were the cause of much amusement.
Steve Knightley brought his ukulele into the fray for a lovely version of Bob Dylan’s Señor – Howard’s trumpet added a genuine Latin American feel to the song – before Phil Beer also rejoined the lineup for a trip back in time to revive Crow On The Cradle, a song from Show of Hands’ eponymous 1987 debut album. During the song, I was struck by the intimacy that the show’s structure had achieved, as Track Dogs’ tight harmonies and clusters-around-the-mic alternated with spots from the two-piece Show of Hands.
And it was Show Of Hands who closed the first half of the show with Company Town, their ode to corporate greed from their 2012 album, Wake The Union. Howard Brown appeared on the theatre’s balcony to provide an unexpected trumpet accompaniment, and Steve brought the song’s lyric right up to date with a splendid new line – “There are lockdown parties up on the hill.” Take that, Johnson!
Track Dogs were back to open the second half, and Howard starred yet again as he strode to the front of the stage for another stirring Mariachi trumpet solo in The Deep End, a track from the band’s 2019 Uke Songs album. Garrett Wall’s Shuffling guitar and Dave Mooney’s rock steady bassline provided the drive for the next number – perhaps called Stay on Track(?) – before Phil Beer popped back again, this time to reprise his lead vocal on Love And War, from the Dogs’ Fire On The Rails album. And he was vibrant! And the surprises just kept on coming!… Steve was back for fantastic version of Steve Earle’s Devil’s Right Hand, a song that takes a strong swipe at America’s gun culture, and Track Dogs’ vocal harmonies were yet another layer of icing on an increasingly well-decorated cake.
Track Dogs percussionist/banjoist, Robbie K Jones took the mic for a howling lead vocal on Ruby, a Cousin Emmy bluegrass tune from the 1940s and the already crowded stage became a surrogate dancefloor as the respective Hands and Dogs were joined by Alice Jones who performed an energetic and enthralling Appalachian dance – which Steve Knightley joined with slightly less grace than Alice so easily exuded…
The end was in sight, but there was still time for a few more delights. Maria is a delightful love song that (apparently) came to Steve fully formed as he waited his turn to appear at a Canary Islands festival in January of this year. It’s a song that is truly tailor-made for Track Dogs’ accompaniment, and the combination of Phil Beer’s Spanish guitar, Howard’s trumpet and Garrett Wall’s soaring vocals was divine. Next up was a bluegrass tribute to Loa Montez, the nineteenth century Irish and Flamenco dancer. I thought that Phil’s mandolin solo was breathtaking and, judging from the volume of the audience reaction, so did everyone else!
With the services of such a versatile group of musicians as Track Dogs to hand, it would have been a waste for Show of Hands not to tackle Santiago, perhaps my favourite song in their repertoire. Happily they did, and what a sublime version it was, as Howard once again used his trumpet to bring the authentic sounds of South America into a North Yorkshire room. As always, the show’s finale was provided by Cousin Jack, Show of Hands’ touching tribute to Cornwall’s lost mining industry. This time the song was deeply enhanced by the additional presence of Track Dogs, and the audience lifted the roof on the song’s “Where there’s a mine…” chorus.
It wasn’t over quite yet, though… The whole ensemble returned to see us off with a joyful rendition of The Best One Yet. Steve shared the vocals with the Track Dog guys as they dragged in snatches of In the Summertime, Here Comes The Sun and even Macarena to deliver the message that summer is, after that interminable 2-year wait, finally here. And Steve didn’t hold back – his parting words, before the combined bands bid their final, final farewell with an unamplified, acapella version of CSN’s Helplessly Hoping, were: “Let’s go! Get out into the green fields! We’re going to let the music flood the year!
And so say all of us!
It isn’t too late to catch the tail end of the “Dog Show Sessions.” Show Of Hands and Track Dogs still have a couple of shows lined up – at The Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall on Friday 27th May ( a stunning setting for what should be an amazing show), at Carnglaze Caverns, Liskeard on Saturday 28th and in Exeter’s magnificent Cathedral on Wednesday 1st June. If you’re in the vicinity of any of those places on the right dates, then I strongly recommend that you pop along. This show is not to be missed!
And, as Steve Knightley reminded us before he left the stage in Whitby, Show of Hands will be out and about at various festivals throughout the summer – see the band’s website for details – and they’ll be back on tour in the autumn, with Miranda back on board. We’ll be there!!
Watch the official preview video for The Dog Show Sessions here: