This year’s Show of Hands Summer Family Concert at Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens had to survive without Phil Beer, away sailing the high seas with his Folk Boat project. But Steve Knightley oversaw a day that still provided a cornucopia of excellent music. Folk Radio UK went along to join in the fun, chat to the artists and ask Steve about the event and some of his current and future projects
This series of concerts has been running for 16 years and the combination of the magnificent Abbotsbury setting and the loyalty of Show of Hands’ considerable local following is likely to see it continue for a good while yet. The descent from the crest of the chalk ridge down to Abbotsbury village is breathtaking, the 18 mile long shingle spit of Chesil Beach marking a dramatic boundary between the lagoon and marshlands that fringe the edge of the chalk downs and the waters of Lyme Bay. Enter the village of Abbotsbury and you could also have descended a worm hole back in time to Thomas Hardy’s Abbotsea. A mile to the west, sit yourself down on a grassy lawn surrounded by palm trees and the dislocation of time and place is complete. A perfect setting to lose yourself in an afternoon and evening of superb acoustic music.
Steve Knightley began with a solo set, choosing songs such as Longdog and linking with chat that frequently highlighted references to local places and characters, readily building a rapport with an audience largely drawn from those same places. Not too difficult for him, he used to live in nearby Bridport. Having wetted the appetite with a half hour set, Steve placated an enthusiastic crowd with a promise he’d be back later with friends and smarter clothes. So, while Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston took to the stage with their beautifully crafted songs and tunes interweaving vocals, mandolin and double bass, Steve and I chatted about projects old and new and surviving a summer without Phil.
Although Steve and Phil haven’t gigged together since last November, they’ve been quietly working away in the studio on the First World War commemoration double album Centenary. It had been released just that week, so, not surprisingly, discussing it occupied much of our time; so much so that the conversation and album will be featured in a future review.
Steve’s live work for the last few months has been centred around his Grow Your Own Gig tour. A simple enough concept, if you have access to a local village or community hall, you contact Steve and, between you, organize a gig. It’s proved amazingly popular with over 450 people offering venues and the dates so far arranged stretching well into 2015. So, with that level of interest, is he likely to repeat the concept? He thought probably not, though, having met some great groups of organizers through the GYOG idea, something similar may emerge.
For this summer, Steve’s attention is shifting to the Festival dates he has booked. Generally, he’s billed as ‘Steve Knightley and Friends’ but what’s emerging is a grouping he’s calling the Wake The Union Band. That was the title of the last Show of Hands album, notable for the ways it showcased both the UK and US roots of the band’s music and also for the number of high quality collaborators Steve and Phil were able to bring to the recording. The Wake The Union Band aims to reunite as many of those collaborators as possible. In Steve’s view, the friends assembled at Abbotsbury, Miranda, Rex, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin are the core of the band and, during the course of the summer, they will be joined by Leonard Podolak, Canadian 5-string claw hammer banjo maestro and American, Matt Gordon, on fiddle and clogs. The line up will be completed by Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting. The complete ensemble promises to be one of the highlights of this year’s Shrewsbury Festival but, regrettably for those of us who won’t be there, the intention is for that show to be a one off. Missing from the original album collaborators will be Seth Lakeman and Cormac Byrne, a real regret for Steve, but, he admitted, with their packed schedules it just proved impossible to timetable their involvement.
Meanwhile, back on stage, Miranda and Rex were followed by Sheelanagig, a band that first featured in the FRUK playlist in 2010 but one I’d not seen before, also one I’m not likely to forget in a hurry. They describe themselves as ‘knees up Balkan flavoured chaos’. A 5 piece band from Bristol, for the last 9 years they’ve been brewing up a storm with their gypsy jazz flavoured music and high-energy anarchic stage show. Steve introduced them as the band he’d heard in the distance at Glastonbury last year. Or rather, he’d heard the audience reaction and just had to follow the buzz to find out the cause. I think it fair to say that the, possibly rather more sedate, Abbotsbury audience didn’t know what hit them at first but rapidly warmed to the fast-paced rhythmically intricate music and on-stage antics. With guitar, fiddle, banjo and flute all able to take leading rôles backed by acoustic bass and a full drum kit, Sheelanagig proved themselves the consummate festival band and eventually left the stage after a lengthy encore to a barrage of cheers and shouts. A band that tells you about a disastrous and possibly apocryphal tour to Romania as an introduction to a tune entitled Lost in Transitvania gets my vote any time.
The next band up had their own, very different, means to make the audience sit up and take notice. Aimée are a trio of siblings, taking their name from the elder of two sisters, Aimée (18) and Freya (13), joined by their younger brother Ross (11). Aimée is the songwriter and main vocalist of the band also playing guitar. Freya adds violin and backing vocals whilst Ross delivers a strong rhythmic backing on cajon. Aimée introduces their material with a gentle confidence and together they present well crafted songs with spot on harmonies and instrumentation. They’ve made quite an impact at Purbeck Folk Festival over the last couple of years as well as last year’s Southdowns Folk Festival, leading to several festival bookings this summer. We can expect to hear a lot more of Aimée in the future.
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin were the final act to appear before Steve and friends rounded off the day. Phil and Hannah’s set was featured in our review of their new album release. They then had to quickly return to the stage with Steve, Miranda and Rex to give us the first outing of the embryonic Wake The Union Band. Despite the name, the set only included 5 tracks from the Wake The Union album, though Steve had already used a couple more in his solo set. They opened with an instrumental allowing band members to join Steve one by one, leading in to Don Henley’s Boys of Summer, a song ideally suited to a summer festival and as American as Mom’s apple pie. The lengthy instrumental gave ample time for Phil’s dobro, Hannah’s fiddle and Rex’s mandolin to showcase individually and collectively the band’s Americana credentials even before they’re joined by the North American members. There followed an hour and a half in which Wake The Union Songs were interspersed with Show of Hands classics such as Blue Cockade, untouched by any transatlantic influence, The Keeper, newly rearranged for the Centenary album and Country Life, slowed down and, with Phil’s dobro adding haunting phrases, becoming more a lament for what’s been lost than the angry protests of the original recording. Steve even inserted a spoken reminiscence, recalling local pubs that were no longer around.
The set was finely balanced between showing the potential of the new band and appealing to the long established Show of Hands fans in the audience. The resulting standing ovation was testament to the success of that balancing act. No account would be complete, though, without a mention of the encore. Borrowed from his Grow Your Own Gig material, it perfectly illustrates the confidence with which Steve can introduce the unexpected and the outright humorous into his performances. A mash up of Pink’s Try with Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, yep, that’s unexpected alright but following it with A.I.G. you’d expect would close the night in classic Show of Hands territory. That is until Steve reveals a talent for musical mimicry with ‘guest’ verses from Dylan and Springsteen. That’s the way to send people home with a smile from ear to ear.
Review by: Johnny Whalley