Steve Knightley and Phil Beer are widely acknowledged as the finest acoustic roots duo in England. They make up the band A Show of Hands, which in case you doubt their credentials, has sold out the Royal Albert Hall no less. So how did they come to be playing in Troisdorf? Obviously the Bonn area is making a name in Folk circles. Who better than to give us a report than our own Folk Club MC John Harrison…
A Show of Hands in Troisdorf with Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston in support.
Show of Hands, comprising of Steve Knightley and Phil Beers are perhaps England’s premiere folk duo, they have known each other since they were teenagers around Exeter and have been playing together seriously now for over a decade and besides headlining numerous folk festivals they have even sold out the Royal Albert Hall in London on three occasions and are about to do so again shortly. So they are certainly not your typical folk group and they are also one of very few folk groups who have managed to put out professional music videos and their records feel like they could and should strangely belong in the mainstream music charts. So what actually are they doing in a wonderful wooden beamed community hall in a small sleepy suburb of Troisdorf in western Germany, halfway between Cologne and Bonn?
The answer probably lies with the enthusiasm of a few venerable local folk fans and the noble courage of the cultural office of the town of Troisdorf who arranged this wonderful musical delight for the assembled six score guests. As if this was not enough in itself, there was yet another treat in store for us.
Miranda Sykes has for several years now been the third member of the Show of Hands duo with her steadfast backing on double bass and vocals. Tonight she takes the stage shortly after 20:00 hrs together with Rex Preston as a support group for Show of Hands, and really blossoms.
They kick of with a wonderful Kate Rusby song “ Old Man Time” where Miranda’s rich deep bowed bass sounds intersperse marvellously with Rex’s mandolin and Miranda’s dulcet vocal tones. A somewhat more upbeat Karine Polwart song “ Only One Way “ follows and allows great scope to showcase Rex’s mandolin dexterity and Miranda’s bass lines are reminding me of a certain bass player, but for now the name escapes me. Now Rex swaps his mandolin for a longer necked bouzouki which he capos on the 9th fret to play the delightful Ryan Robert’s song “ Love is Not a Flower” which he brought back from a recent USA visit to take part in a mandolin championship, and sings the lead vocals with Miranda singing in harmony. Miranda leaves the stage to Rex to play an instrumental of his own composition, which he renders adroitly on the mandolin.
With subtle hints of Appalachia, and entitled “4AM” it has all the inherent “lost in thought drowsiness” of the previous evening combined with the expectant energy of the approaching dawn. After listening to this piece, it’s not hard to understand what Rex was doing at a mandolin championship.
Miranda is not only a very skilled musician with an extremely silky smooth voice but she also has a rare talent for selecting songs from modern songwriters which suit her as if bespoken and Imogen Heap’s “Between Sheets” is a prime example of this, where her vocal range and talent comes well to the fore. Slaid Cleave’s song “One Good Year” an ironic take on New Year’s Day sees Rex once again on the Bouzouki and Miranda’s deep bass bowing with wonderful vocal harmonies. They round off their excellent set with “Over the Rhine” singer songwriter Karen Bergquest’s funky jazz number “Trouble” accompanied by mandolin and walking bass “if you came to make trouble, make me a double honey, I think it’s good”.
Finally I remember who Miranda reminds me of when she plays together with Rex, it’s a kind of impish Danny Thompson, full of self confidence and coming to the fore when the music warrants it. We’ll certainly be hearing more good things from Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston in the near future. Don’t believe me? Go and look see:
After that wonderful unexpected interlude Steve Knightley finally strides onto the stage and surveys the audience waiting patiently in the darkened hall with tea lights flickering gently on each table. (Later on in the evening Phil Beer describes it from the quite high stage as „looking out on the landing lights of an airfield“) Steve grabs his trade mark cello-mandolin tuned to GDAD, two octaves lower and much larger and longer than a mandolin, and leaves the stage to come right down into the centre of the audience where he begins to play and sing totally acoustically “ The Setting “ creating a serene unplugged moment where you could here a pin drop, as he moves over to the right wall in front of the stage. Phil not only takes over the the accompaniment on the guitar and the vocals but he superimposes the song “Mary of Dungloe” from the floor in front of stage left and we are reminded what true live stereo sound really sounds like, before it has been recorded and amplified, and pushed through wires into speakers, as they play and sing the harmonised melody lines as counterpoint voices with one another. Singing in canons, instead of firing them, a veritable joy to behold.
Back up on the stage with the jack plugs in and the sound up, the audience is treated indeed to what may be described as some of the very best modern traditional acoustic (albeit now lightly amplified) music, which shelters, for the want of a better genre word, under the umbrella of “folk music”.
Folk music, has both harboured and nurtured so many different and differing types of music over the ages. This is a huge immense umbrella and many people under it are, by its very nature, severe traditionalists, sometimes in an uncompromising way, but it also allows refuge to people who both respect the tradition and pay great homage to the skill and musicianship involved in actually playing the music, yet wish more creativity and to be pilgrims’ progress rather than mere pilgrims. Steve Knightley is certainly of this ilk, his lyrics are in the very best John Ruskin tradition of travelling more than the average person, and more importantly travelling with his eyes open, and even more importantly still, describing what he sees, in a way that common folk can both understand and connect with and this fact combined with Phil Beer’s musical dexterity enhancing this great modern wordsmith makes Show of Hands a musical delight, steeped in tradition, but also with a very modern relevance.
Show of Hands are deeply aware of the things which happen around them but unlike some of his peers, Steve Knightley is someone who is not afraid to write about them and his songs give a refreshing insight into problems of modern life which although often seen by so many, are very rarely discussed, and then normally by only a few. As a former teacher himself he well knows that society will not begin to heal its modern iniquities if parents and teachers mutually blame one another for a younger generation seemingly lost and distracted.
Identifying problems in society is the first step and studying our roots and history is a second step, and more inter-generational activity is a third step. Folk music and folk clubs will never solve all the problems of the modern world, but active preservation and even active encouragement from the part of wider society is certainly a step in the right direction of understanding the depth of the enormous humanity from which our modern society evolves and perhaps even help to heal some of the rips and tears which the very fabric of this society is currently experiencing.
Show of Hands certainly keep the Exeter luthier David Oddy busy, with their instrument requirements, which is a healthy local side effect of the group’s success and their music stands alone in combining the best of tradition with creativity. For me as an expatriate Englishman they seem sometimes almost “frighteningly” English. For so many years, indeed centuries, the English were quite content to allow the peripheral, predominantly Celtic, regions of the British Isles and the Empire almost a monopoly in matters of folk music, fighting the intensely fierce parts of foreign wars and running the civil and foreign services most efficiently, to the chagrin and distain of all other civilised nations. Now with modern devolution within the UK reappropriating certain political powers in the best traditions of subsidiarity to Scotland and Wales, whilst other political powers are constantly being seceded involuntarily, or without popular franchise, to Brussels centrality in the other direction, one notes a certain squeeze on the very invisible essence of being English, as opposed to being British, taking place.
History has often shown us that certain forms of extreme “national pride” are best buried within larger political and geographical units, which better further and protect the rights and aspirations of minority groups, a fact of which I am sure that Show of Hands are well aware.
Most of you who have read thus far will already know that their music is wonderful, and if you don’t yet, you’ll easily find your self a “slice of country life” in the very best tradition. Their music is really, really good but in my opinion, really only secondary to what they are achieving on a wider stage and at a much greater level in society as a whole.
Check the internet:
and if you go to a festival there’s a good chance you’ll find them at the top of a bill somewhere. Look, listen and learn and go out and do likewise. There should be more “Show of Hands” and remember that there should also be more shows of hands where people put their hands up and volunteer to do something positive, specifically for folk music and generally for society as a whole.
You never know, you might make all the difference.
– John Harrison
For those curious after reading John’s review, here is a video introduction to SOH by the Band themselves: