Tremendous resume brings this venerable institution bang up to date with a, um, bang!
Release Date: 6th November 2023
Label: Hands On Music
Format: CD / digital
Show Of Hands are not retiring. A few years shy of 40 years of existence, 1986 onward, they are merely having a rest. Honest, they say so themselves, on their website: they are stopping touring “for a while”, irrespective of the labelling for their forthcoming tour(s) as being final. That the “rest” will consist of Steve Knightley tackling new projects with gusto, he dropping hints right, left and centre, and Phil Beer doing one off ‘specials’, well, that’s the nature of ‘retirement’ in show-biz. (Go ask Martin Carthy!)
Still, it’s a bloody good time to be releasing Roots 2, a second compendium of what they’ve been up to since the last, in 2007. And, in the modern way, as well as the pick of the litter from their intervening albums, there are live tracks that, show off their collaborations with the likes of Johnny Kalsi and Jackie Oates, not to say current ATB faves, Track Dogs. Plus lashings, of course of Miranda Sykes, their trusty third hand. Subtitled the Best of, that, clearly, is a misnomer, being far, far too short a selection to even begin to cover their prodigious output. And from a first glance, you will see that the graphics are very much in the same style as the earlier compendium, courtesy Stylorouge, begging a place on your shelves, alongside.
It’s got to be a corker to open with, right? And it does, with Haunt You, first track from 2012’s Anglo-American fusion, Wake The Union, bursting out the traps, a song co-written by Knightley with Seth Lakeman. Is Knightley our best singer in contemporary roots music? I think so, and he is on fire for this updated mariner’s after-death promise yarn. Eat your heart out, Sting, if the epithets mirror a more eloquent Every Breath You Take. Beer’s fiddle sings like uillean pipes and all is well with the world. Immediately showing the other side of their coin, if less called upon, Beer takes lead vocal for T’was On April Morning/Isca Rose. And lovely as it is, stretch your ear around the exemplary bass play of Sykes, rebounding and resonating alongside the percussion, which sound positively like a morris side, with sticks a ‘clacking. Percussion? Yes, it’s the Dhol Foundation/Afro-Celts man up next, Kalsi, on Mother Tongue, one of their core social conscience anthems, much as they’d hate that description. It is a glorious song, blending cultures and tradition into an immutable pot of shared experience.
Reunion Hill, by Richard Shindell, and not the only song by this American singer/songwriter the band cover, follows, with a strong and strident vocal. (Knightley is a a co-patron of Shrewsbury Folk Festival, and Shindell is a frequent performer, uncertain which came first.) Long Way Home follows, a Knightley road song, about getting home. As contrast comes the bittersweetness of Just Enough To Lose, a song led, unusually, by piano, that piano, by the way, courtesy Matt Clifford. You may not know the name of Knightley’s best man, but he has just reprised his piano duties for the Rolling Stones, on Hackney Diamonds. Which, considering Beer has also been a sidesman for the Satisfaction hit makers , Blinded By Love, on Steel Wheels, shows just how their footprint encroaches on the merry-go-round of popular culture. It is worth also mentioning that the album from this, and a few others, comes, is nominally the SoH 4-piece, with Cormac Byrne on bodhran. Keys Of Canterbury is where Jackie Oates pitches in, and her vocal is a glorious duet counterpoint to Knightley. I don’t know if she adds her fiddle to Beer’s but the string-drenched maelstrom is fabulous.
Track Dogs get their first airing for Columbus (Didn’t Find America), a track from the live Show Dogs album, where the catalyst between the two bands first grew flesh. (Here, we needed no encouragement for this serendipity….) I love a trumpet, me, which is all that needs saying. Home To A Million Thoughts is an older song, from 2012, a deceptively simple construct of guitar, fiddle and voice, encapsulating what Show Of Hands can do at their ‘simplest’ best. A truly lovely song. Breme Fell At Hastings is then an odd one, with Michael Wood’s ancient Saxon introduction. Not my favourite, but Next Best Western, another Shindell song, is. Beer takes lead vocal for this live staple, stuck, forever, in my ears as wondering why “Sinners” is the rhyme for “Truckers”. (If you know it, you’ll know it….. ). IED, Science Or Nature, Knightley’s daunting reponse to the serious illnesses of a trio of family members, makes for a lightning rod, grounding these songs into a pointer from reality. One of those songs that has you looking nervously inward.
Now You Know is a classic SoH singalong chorus, perhaps to build up to one of the, possibly the all-important entry ticket of this album, a staggeringly poignant live version of Country Life, from Northcott Theatre, Exeter, their home turf. A stonking and slightly slower rendition, if you haven’t got something in your eye, as this unfolds, I despair for you. In fact, listen to it now! All it takes is the Chimes Of Freedom-y You’ll Get By, and that’s (just) the first disc! (Yes, there is another, and, yes, it’s going to get equivalent, sorry, track-by-track comment…)
Disc 2 opens with Cruel River, where Beer’s fiddle weaves the path of the river as evocatively as Knightley’s vocal, before cascading mandocello beckons in the call and response vocal of The Old Lych Way , the near choral vocal responses courtesy Beer, Sykes and a double-tracked Knightley. Long time Longdogs, as the SoH fans are known, will already be familiar the band’s propensity and affinity for Latin music, as demonstrated by early collaborations with Chilean musicians (as Alianza). Perhaps why they have hit such sympatico with the adopted Madrideños of Track Dogs. Recuerdos (Maria) is another live track, with Track Dogs, that epitomises the ease with which they can adopt that idiom, and the heft supplied by the whole Dog Show experience. Plus, you can never have too much trumpet.
The Lily And The Rose offers Sykes her first vocal showcase, in the version from Centenary Live, at Exeter Cathedral, in tandem with Dartmoor’s Lost Sound Choir. A complete change in palate from anything before, it is almost ghostly, the arrangement and accordion coming from long-time associate, Chris Hoban, also the writer of The Old Lych Way. If that is one extreme of the styles here offered, Battlefield Dance Floor then goes out on an entirely different limb, enrolling the Bridge Hill Shandy Men, to give it some full on (1-2-3-4) shanty. Stripping back to the core trio, comes The Man I Was, with Knightley maxing out the inherent melancholy his tones can apply to a sad song, with Sykes adding ineffable harmony to this tremendous song of belated and self-deprecatory recognition. Wonderful.
King Of The World is likeable enough bluster, characterised by the melodeon of Andy Cutting; I guess I prefer maudlin, getting that aplenty for Kirsty Merryn’s Forfarshire, which follows. Unusually, despite all the copious backing, Beer is not even present on this track. Gerry Diver, producer of 2019’s Battlefield Dance Floor album, providing all bar the duet vocals of Knightley and Sykes. Sticking with that album, Lost also brings back the Shandy Men, if, this time, a little more restrainedly. Cormac Byrne’s percussion is particularly good on this one.
Banger time, and Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed is one of their finest, an in-yer-face diatribe against the financial crisis of 2010, as applicable, if not more so, to the shower who currently run the country, 13 years on. I remember buying this as a single, hard to believe the story hasn’t changed a jot. (Odd to hear the full rhythm section experience backing, mind.) Devil’s Right Hand, the Steve Earle one, has long been a Phil Beer solo staple, the Track Dogs collab bringing it back into the SoH repertoire, for this live cut. More present for completeness, I feel, it sits a tad uncomfortably, needing Sykes to restore the balance with her exquisite Sea Glass, all bowed bass and pristine vocal, with just the insistent propulsion of Byrne’s percussion.
A country waltz fits like a glove around Knightley’s timbre, something I could enjoy hearing a deal more of in any future. Of course, it helps, when you are the best roots duo/trio in the land, that you can call on the best steelman in the land, B.J. Cole adding some delectable sweeps of his chosen instrument, for 2012’s Who Gets To Feel Good. Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan is another of their regular covers, with Beer sawing away with an uplifting abandon. (Personally, I would have liked to have had their version of Boys Of Summer included, but there are always the excellent DL albums, Covers and Covers 2 for those, like me, in need of a covers fix.) But it is the exquisite trad. arr. folk fix of a song like Hambledon Hall that offers the true elixir of the band. This has, again, Jackie Oates adding her vocal and viola, and is utterly gorgeous.
How then to finish? Right back up to now is now, with a further Dog Show number, The Best One Yet, the show-stopping finale of their joint performances, together with all its snippets of Mungo Jerry, Dobie Gray, Johnny Nash and even, da-da-da-da, The Beatles. (Oh, and I forgot, the Macarena…..). Cheesy as hell, but fabulous fun, and a fitting finale, if it really is, for this institution, well deserving, oops, a full show of hands.
Don’t forget the tours! The trio hit the boards this year, starting this very week, for a run of bigger shows, with the duo returning to the sort of intimate gigs they started off in, next year. At The Barrier will certainly be making a visit or two. (Here’s a link to dates and tickets, noting many already sold out!)
Here’s The Man I Was: