Normally seen as one half of well-known ‘grumpy’ duo Show Of Hands (established on the folk circuit for over twenty years remarkably and who were once described as “the guys who write songs about things that p*** them off”) Steve Knightley took advantage of a break in the SOH schedule to fill February (and a bit of March) with some solo dates. Unsupported and unaccompanied is the tour slogan, the only accompaniment being assorted stringed instruments.
On previous solo tours he has performed two halves of songs about the sea and songs about the land. This time the theme was two halves of songs of the countryside combined with his usual variety of anecdotes and introductions which generally include some topical social commentary. The bookies might have had an interesting day taking bets on what might be the focus of his cutting wit this evening. The next door restaurant was full of roses and loving couples as of course it was Valentine’s Day – a fact not lost on the young couple for whom he did an earlier interview. Instead of attending the gig later, they were going to have “a nice night out instead!” In what has become a bit of a trademark in the same way that 80’s Brummie comedian Jasper Carrott’s worked his collection of comical insurance claims into his act, Knightley has started to build up a collection of tales of his adventures with cold callers, living through his alter ego ‘Gerald’.
More recent targets which might have provided the fuel for Knightley’s cutting remarks could have been the resignation of the Pope, Martine McCutcheon’s bankruptcy or maybe the furore over diving footballers and the horse meat scandals. None bore the brunt though; just the suggestion of a less salubrious local drinking establishment in Rochdale, at the proposal of an audience member, being worked into one of the evening’s songs.
Strolling languidly out onto the floor levelled stage in his usual waistcoat and sleeves rolled up ready to go to work, Steve bookended his performance with some unaccompanied and unplugged material – the traditional folk song Low Down In The Broom (popularised by many a named folk singer) started off the show upfront and up close to the first few rows, while he later treated the audience to a pure unaccompanied version of The Galway Farmer from the Show Of Hands repertoire. Often mistaken as a traditional Irish song such is its authenticity, it was performed in its original version, eschewing the usual folk traditions of tinkering and tampering with a song and the subtle changes which occur over a period of time. Encoring with Widdecombe Fair (“more like a stag night in Newquay”) Steve was again stepping out of the spotlight and into the darkness of the first few rows “au naturel” in his own words!
There were included some of the more popular crowd pleasing songs from the Show Of Hands collection – the country rock of Longdog, We Are Alright and a singalong Aunt Maria – written about famed song collector Cecil Sharp’s trip into deepest America to collect ever possible variation of English folk songs and his encounter with the fabled Maria. The cream of 2007’s solo album Cruel River was also plundered for the title track (one of his best songs and one which was offered to folk golden boy Seth Lakeman, possibly in the hope of some healthy royalties, but sadly declined; maybe not a bad thing as the Knightley version would be difficult to top) along with Raining Again, the beautiful She’s Gone and Transported. Transported takes a light hearted look at the mishaps of sheep rustling and rural villainy and was juxtaposed neatly with The Oakham Poachers – a much more cautionary tale of old which tells of the consequences had you been caught and combining words from various takes on the song with the classic tune – played with a duly ominous and threatening backing and chilling in its lines of “three brothers hang for the doing of one crime.”
Whether solo, as part of a duo or acting as a kilted presenter at the BBC Folk awards, Steve Knightley comes over as an articulate and relaxed communicator. The gigs have given him the opportunity to dig out, dust off and revisit some old songs from his repertoire. Unlike many of the manipulated and manufactured artists of today, he’s paid his dues and done the pub circuit and honed his gift for finely crafted song and musicianship down to an art.
Review by: Michael Ainscoe
Photo Credit: Michael Ainscoe