When a band as consistently productive as Show of Hands announces a break from touring of almost a year, you can be fairly confident it won’t be because the members want an extended holiday. And, sure enough, there’s been a steady stream of news about their individual plans. Steve Knightley has embarked on his Grow Your Own Gig tour, encouraging anyone and everyone to make use of their local village and community halls to host a visit from him. Miranda Sykes is busy in her duo with mandolin wizard Rex Preston whilst Phil Beer will spend much of the summer afloat with his Folk Boat project (see video below) and is currently part way through both a solo tour and, that much anticipated treat, an outing of The Phil Beer Band.
The Phil Beer Band, in the flesh, exists for the duration of its tours and, given the extensive commitments of the people involved, it always feels like a minor miracle that the core of the band has remained so stable over the years. It’s a testament to the sheer enjoyment they generate when playing together that Phil manages to assemble Steve Cricket (drums), Nick Quarmby (bass) and Gareth Turner (melodeons) for the tours. For recent tours Miranda Sykes (guitar and vocals) and Liv Dunn (fiddle) have completed the line up. This year, Miranda opted to stick with her duo work and so the band currently on the road is a 5 piece.
Phil, with his trademark David Oddy acoustic guitar, kicked off the gig with a couple of solo songs, Randy Newman’s Dancing Bear and Reverend Gary Davies’s Cocaine, familiar material for anyone who’s been to his solo gigs. Looking around the packed hall one wondered if there were people here who only knew Phil from his Show of Hands and solo incarnations, maybe they were wondering what this band business was all about. They didn’t have long to wait as Phil, by then on electric guitar, was joined first by Steve and Nick to provide a back line for Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and subsequently by Liv and Gareth giving a full blown country rock treatment to Steve Earle’s Devils Right Hand.
In the current line up Phil takes all lead vocals, with Nick adding chorus backup. When it comes to instrumental solos, though, Phil, Liv and Gareth are all equally capable of stunning performances and they come thick and fast for the rest of the evening. Phil’s electric guitar work brings out a different side to his musical personality, whether it’s driving out a blues rhythm, adding atmospheric slide guitar or picking out intricate solos on the high frets. Having the freedom to branch out into different guitar styles clearly sits well with Phil, throughout the evening he only once swapped guitar for mandolin and didn’t touch a fiddle at all. That is sure testament to the quality fiddle work provided by Liv Dunn.
It’s always a pleasure to see Gareth Turner on stage, surrounded by his collection of melodeons, or diatonic accordions as Phil prefers to call them, one suspects mainly so he can slip in the odd ‘diabolic organ’ quip. Melodeons/accordions come in all flavours, matched to musical styles from all over. Gareth’s roots may be in the English tradition but, whether playing a Springsteen song, traditional blues or any other element of the band’s eclectic repertoire, he produces solos that are a perfect fit. He doesn’t imitate a style, he bends it and shapes it to his playing. Gareth should be out and about this summer with his regular band, Little Johnny England, unmissable.
Sitting contentedly behind the front line, drummer Steve Cricket is the band member with probably the longest standing collaboration with Phil, dating back to the Arizona Smoke Review of the early 80s. The Phil Beer Band is Steve’s principal music outlet, his work is mainly in theatre, in contrast to bass player Nick Quarmby who been kept busy in Colvin Quarmby. Nick surprised many recently by announcing he was giving up playing live. He’s deadly serious about this, enrolled on a BSc(Hons) Natural Sciences degree with the Open University and says he’s giving the academic life his best shot. But when Phil is putting together the next band tour, I wonder how hard it will be to resist? Steve and Nick provide a back line for the band that’s such a solid, inspired foundation it’s hard to imagine breaking it up.
It would always be worth the trip to see musicians of this quality but it is the repertoire that makes a Phil Beer Band gig extra special. I’ve described the eclectic set list, but add names such as Big Bill Broonzy, Warren Zeavon, Lowell George, Bill Zorn, Robbie Robertson, Phil’s own compositions and many others. This is by no means a random walk through quality music, you are listening to the output of musicians who’ve been major influences on Phil’s own musical journey. Starting from Cocaine, he proudly tells you this was the first song he ever preformed in public (though admitting it might just have been rubbish), through to contemporary songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Richard Shindell, Phil provides a fascinating commentary to the journey. Labels such as roots, blues, country rock are easily applied but Phil slips in reminders, as much for himself as for the audience one feels, of what he calls his ‘folk credentials’. Nowhere were these better displayed than in the encore sequence, starting with Phil’s great treatment of Jackson Browne’s Before the Deluge, the instrumental coda develops first into a cracking tune, Mampy moose, from Edward II’s John Hart, Gareth’s melodeon taking the lead, and then into the traditional Quebecois tune, Philip Brunels, giving Liv’s fiddle a final opportunity to shine.
Phil had hoped to have two live albums ready to coincide with his spring tours. The album of his solo material is expected by the end of March but band material, recorded on their tour a couple of years back, is still in editing and release is likely to be held over until next year’s band outing. Partly making up for the lack of a new album, the classic album, Mandorock 2000 Live, has been re-pressed by Talking Elephant and is once more available.
The second half of the current tour kicks off at the Ashcroft Arts Centre in Fareham on Friday 21 March, check out the remaining dates and if you can, get to a gig near you, you’ll be giving yourself a rare treat.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Phil Beer Band Live
Phil’s Folk Boat Project – Johnny, our reviewer, is the one with the biggest beard :)