There’s no doubt about it: We have listened to their fabulous albums, including the much-heralded and recently-released Centenary Live At Exeter Cathedral, but seeing a Show Of Hands concert in the flesh is sheer and complete artistry. The audience is totally blown away by the commanding and mesmerising songwriting of Steve Knightley, the musical mastery of Phil Beer and the empathetic and uplifting double bass of Miranda Sykes; however, all three seem to possess a mysterious magical energy that locks on whenever there’s an small army of instruments waiting – and the stunning three-part harmonies are just the icing on the cake.
Devon-based Show Of Hands were out on the 23-date Walk With Me autumn tour, promoting the Centenary album – and what a spectacular, moving album it is. The project came about when Steve began a mammoth tour of 150 UK village halls. He met Somerset artist Rob Heard, who was creating a small, shrouded figure to represent each of the 19,240 men that fell on the first morning of The Battle Of The Somme. Steve and Rob approached Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and The 19,240 Committee was formed. The figures were unveiled to the public on Friday, July 1, 2016, exactly one hundred years after The Somme offensive broke out. The same night, actors Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton read prose and poems at a memorial concert in Exeter Cathedral, featuring Show Of Hands, accordionist and songwriter Chris Hoban and The Lost Sound Chorus from Dartmoor, a choir founded and directed by Sandra Smith – and the Anniversary album was conceived.
Steve is well-known and respected for writing barbed, uncompromising songs which cut deep into the flesh of public opinion; however, the trio explore and catalogue other outstanding writers from all over the world so their fans can appreciate that inspiring music lives, breathes and is still thriving. Phil, Steve and Miranda delivered the dark and mysterious ‘The Old Lych Way’, composed by accordionist and writer Chris Hogan; Chris also wrote ‘The Lily And The Rose’, beautifully sung by Miranda. Steve interpreted ‘The Next Best Western’, American guitarist and writer Richard Shindell’s stunning lament for the lonely road, inhabited by long-distance truckers and songwriters everywhere, and they fed song after remarkable song to the audience. Show Of Hands promoted the Anniversary album with Steve’s memorable ‘The Exile’ and ‘The Keeper’, which leads on magnificently to the final battle; and the traditional Dorset songs ‘The Blue Cockade’ and ‘Hambledon Fair’. Phil, apart from being an excellent musician on guitar and astonishing fiddle, enhanced many songs with his warm, rich voice.
Steve, Phil and Miranda performed a medley of Steve’s material which the national BBC would not play for being too controversial for their listeners – ‘Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed’, his attack on grabbing capitalism, the corporate bankers who see it as a gravy train and the political parties that support it; ‘Roots’, his demolition of the PEL laws, the totally unfair and utterly shambolic debacle which was engineered by cabinet minister Kim Howells, who has retired as Pontypridd Labour MP; and Steve’s observations on the conservative hunting, shooting and fishing brigade, as immortalised in ‘Country Life’. Just in passing, we must all be thankful for BBC Wales Celtic Heartbeat presenter Frank Hennessy, who played all three banned tracks; Frank, you’re a shining star!
The Knightley composition ‘Cousin Jack’, the Show Of Hands ‘hit’ telling the story of the Cornish diaspora, was the favourite of the concert, and the audience roared out the chorus; Steve paid tribute to what he called the economic migrants of yesterday. He also acknowledged Penarth’s prolific songsmith, the wonderful Martyn Joseph, with the hypnotic ‘Cardiff Bay’. All too soon, the show was over; Steve, Phil and Miranda took a bow while the crowd yelled out for more. This trio cannot be beaten for sheer professionalism and magnetic, powerful electricity.
Megan Henwood was the support, and she’s a red-haired ball of songwriting fire, a tempting taster to whet the audience’s appetites. Four years have elapsed since her debut album, and she paraded songs off her second, darker CD, which has just been released. She held the crowd transfixed, and mark my words: this artist is going to go far.
And just a note: when Joe Stead recorded my 1977 debut album, Gowerton Fair, among the session musicians were my Swansea Jack colleagues Mike James and Peter Davies and an up-and-coming duo called Paul Downes and … Phil Beer. What price for Phil’s complete discography?