Live Reviews

Show Of Hands – Birmingham Town Hall: Live Review

Old, New, Borrowed Blue and all the hits. Show Of Hands are back, and Miranda is back on board!

If you’re a regular peruser of these pages, you’ll realise that we hold folk supergroup Show of Hands in great esteem. We’re perennial attendees at their shows and we always like to first in line whenever they bring out new product. We last came across Show Of Hands back in the spring, when we caught their concert at Whitby’s Pavilion Theatre. On that occasion, they offered us something completely different, when they teamed up with International Madrileños, Track Dogs for sun-soaked Latin rhythms with a West Country heartbeat, and great fun it was, too. But no self-respecting Show Of Hands watcher will disagree that the band is surely at their best when they’re joined by that bass magician with a voice like an angel, Miranda Sykes. Miranda has been estranged from the band since the birth of her son, Wilfrid, in 2018 and now, for the first time in five long years, she’s happily back on board, and firing on all cylinders.

But it wouldn’t be a Show of Hands show if there wasn’t some sort of added twist to make things even more interesting and the theme that they’ve adopted for their Autumn 2022 tour is Old, New, Borrowed and Blue. Let me explain. When we go to a Show Of Hands concert, we obviously want to hear the hits. Galway Farmer, Santiago, Cousin Jack, Roots, The Blue Cockade – the list goes on and on – are all wonderful songs, and we love them, so Show of Hands could hardly get away without performing this “Old” material… But, having said that, Phil, Steve and Miranda are all creative, original musicians, and those creative juices flow continually, in the form of “New” material. Not only that, each band member is a master interpreter of the songs of other composers, and of traditional folk song, so there’s always room for a few “Borrowed” items in a Show Of Hands setlist. And, finally, each band member is highly respectful of those old blues practitioners who provided much of the influence and foundation to the popular music we enjoy today, and a “Blue” section of the repertoire allowed appropriate tributes to be paid to those great innovators.

The band used the first half of the show to parade the “New,” “Borrowed” and “Blue” stuff, with each member taking a solo turn in the spotlight before being joined by the others, before the band reconvened after the interval for a run through the hits – the “Old” material. It all worked a treat!

Steve was first up, and got the show (of hands…) on the road with a stunning version of the traditional folk song, Reynardine. Those familiar with the Fairport interpretation of this song will have recognised the words, but Steve applied a less familiar tune and, as he accompanied himself on ukulele, he conjured up a special brand of spooky Dartmoor magic. Next came the first of a couple of “World Premier” performances of brand-new material. Written with the help and inspiration of Edinburgh band Blue Rose Code, Remember This Kiss is an excellent song, straight out of the classic Show Of Hands mold, and I’ll be amazed (and disappointed) if it’s not a key track on the next album.

Citing a long-term admiration of the writing of Jimmy Cliff, Steve then did full justice to Sitting Here In Limbo, a long-term favourite of mine that I first encountered on the Harder They Come soundtrack album. Phil and Miranda made their first stage appearances of the evening when they joined Steve for a smashing take on Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign, the first blues standard to be rolled out this evening. It was fantastic to see Miranda back with the band – her bass playing is supreme and, tonight, her vocals were extra-special, exactly how I remembered them. And Phil’s slide guitar licks weren’t bad either!

It was Phil’s turn next, and for his first solo number, he turned the clock right back to January 1965 and the seminal Davy Graham album, Folk, Blues and Beyond. Phil was one of many nascent guitarists – and Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton are amongst the many others – who were entranced, awestruck and influenced by Davy’s mastery on that album, and Phil paid due tribute to the man who inspired him to take up the guitar by playing The Seven Gypsies, a track from the album. Phil certainly learned his lessons well – we were all enthralled as he took us through a splendid demonstration of Davy Graham guitar gymnastics. Phil’s “New” song – another of the evening’s “World Premiers” – was The Billy, a song he wrote with the help of Natalie Shaw. It’s a song inspired by the 1960s closure of the Hayling Island railway branch line by Richard Beeching, the notorious Chairman of the British Railways Board or, as Phil more accurately described him, “A bastard.” It’s a great song – as a lifelong railwayman, it struck a particular chord with me and, once again, it’s a song that I’m hoping will appear on the next Show of Hands album.

Phil’s 1909 vintage Gibson mandolin – one of the first flat-back mandolins ever to be produced is, indeed, an object of great beauty, and he used it to accompany himself on a lovely version of Bruce Hornsby’s Every Little Kiss, before he was rejoined by Steve and Miranda for a breathtaking Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do, the Porter Grainger/ Everett Robbins number that Davy Graham also featured on Blues, Folk and Beyond. Phil is a wonderfully accomplished blues guitarist and he’s an excellent blues singer, into the bargain.

All we’d heard so far had been utterly fantastic, but things were about to get even better…

Miranda opened her own solo spot with a delicious version of Dolores Keane’s Will Ye Go To Flanders. Armed with just a bowed bass and a drop-dead-gorgeous voice, she absolutely nailed it. The audience was enchanted and the song was an undoubted highlight of the whole evening. Welcome back, Miranda – we’ve missed you! She picked up her guitar for Stay, Stay, Stay, a song to which she was introduced by Chris While, and the magic continued, before it blossomed wonderfully with I Need You, the Beth Nielsen Chapman song, which Miranda dedicated to young Wilfrid. And, to cap a delightful fifteen minutes at the centre of attention, Miranda was joined once again by Phil and Steve for Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason. And, if you want to hear the best and most soulful white blues singer anywhere, pop along to see Miranda Sykes at your very earliest opportunity!

The first half of the show was enthralling indeed, the “Old/New/Borrowed/Blue” idea worked a treat, and it was wonderful to be able to spend time with each band member in turn. But we also like our hits and the opportunity to sing along, when we attend a Show of Hands gig, and the second half of the show was a veritable feast of the familiar. The band took the stage to a soundtrack of seaside noises (“those seagulls cost a fortune,” quipped Steve) and off they went into a slightly reggae-fied version of Roots. Miranda’s wonderful voice was well to the fore and, like many in the audience (I’d imagine), I found myself musing over the increasing relevance of the song’s lyrics.

According to Steve, Show Of Hands had never played Widdecombe Fair as a trio before. Nevertheless, after a couple of false starts (during which Steve seemed to have trouble remembering whether the song was in a 3/4 signature or 4/4…) they made a good fist of it, with Phil’s violin and Miranda’s bowed bass both adding great depth and an appropriately sinister atmosphere. Be Lucky, from the 2003 Country Life album is a long-term Show Of Hands favourite and Miranda’s lovely harmony vocals were the icing on the cake. The introduction to The Blue Cockade was greeted by a huge cheer from the Birmingham audience – it was clearly one of the songs that they’d been waiting for. Phil’s slide/ flamenco guitar was sublime and, once again, Miranda’s vocals were stunning.

I’m always delighted when Show Of Hands include Santiago in their setlist, and tonight’s version was one of the best I’ve ever heard. Steve and Miranda shared the vocals and Phil turned in some wonderful Andean-flavoured fills on his ukulele. I’ll be heading to South America myself in just a couple of weeks’ time, and this was something guaranteed to put me fully into the mood for the trip. I detected a hint of resignation in Steve’s vocal delivery of the increasingly relevant Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed, a song that, tonight, was performed with a touch of calypso in its bloodstream, before the clock was turned right back for a run through of the popular Crow On The Cradle.

Miranda starred once more as she took the lead vocal for Bonnie Light Horseman, and it was easy to sense that the show was working steadily towards its climax. And, to feed that climax, there’s a new, entirely joyful, post-COVID, kid on the block nowadays in the Show Of Hands repertoire. Best One Yet was written to celebrate the return of summer festivals after the interminable 2-year shutdown. The song celebrates the pure delight of basking in great music, played in the open air. Last time I heard Show Of Hands perform the song, summer was just getting underway, and the song helped to build up the anticipation of the festival pleasures to come. Well – as we all know now – this summer was a scorcher and the festivals were fantastic. It truly was the Best One Yet and – as the song recommends – we got ourselves out in the green fields, and we let the music flow. Oh – and the snatches of In The Summertime, Drift Away, I Can See Clearly Now, and Here Comes The Sun are a masterstroke!

And there was still time for a few more before the last trains started to depart. The whole room clapped along frantically to Galway Farmer, before we were brought right up to date with The Winter Yards, Steve’s contemplation of the devastating impact that lockdown had upon the country’s traveling fairground communities. It’s a sad song but at least Steve was able to identify some of the positive aspects of lockdown: “I don’t know what it was like for you, but, for the first six months, I bloody loved it,” he said, before going on to note that the durability of his relationship with his wife is really based upon the fact that he’s never around…

And that was almost it. Almost, but not quite. We couldn’t leave out Cousin Jack, and we didn’t, and, as always, we sang along lustily as, once again, the displaced Cornish mineworker pondered his options of alternative employment around the far-flung outposts of the world.

There’s no such thing as a boring Show Of Hands concert, and tonight’s version was truly exceptional. Miranda was back, and she was stunning, and the show’s format – the mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar – worked perfectly. More than ever before, I was able to fully appreciate what great musicians and performers the individual band members are and a good time was certainly had by all. It was a great shame that Birmingham Town Hall, a wonderful venue by anyone’s reckoning, was less than half-full; perhaps the ravages of COVID still haven’t gone away, or maybe people were worried about the threat of the rail strike, but those who did take the trouble to attend will have taken home some wonderful memories.

And, if you haven’t yet managed to catch Show Of Hands on their current tour, there’s still time yet. The autumn tour runs until 3rd December when, as usual, the band returns home to Exmouth Pavilion for their final date. In the meantime, they’ve got shows all around the country, and I heartily recommend that you pop along to the show that’s closest to you. Full details of the tour are available here.

Show of Hands Online: Website/ Facebook/ Instagram/ YouTube

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