Steve Knightley and Phil Beer have been on something of a musical detour in their recordings over the last three years, most obviously with last year’s Centenary, combining poetry and music in commemoration of the outbreak of World War I. The album before that, Wake the Union, also took them away from more familiar territory as they deliberately highlighted the American roots influences that have infused their musical journey. But all the comments on The Long Way Home agree, it’s a return to their English roots, as Steve said “it’s back to basics… traditional songs and lots of three-part harmonies”. The three traditional songs are interleaved with Steve’s own songs and four from other songwriters, some well-known, others less so. Steve, Phil and the de facto third member of Show of Hands, Miranda Sykes, have been touring this autumn, showcasing most of the album’s songs. Judging from audience reactions, they’ve hit pay dirt. The melodies, the lyrics, the arrangements all have immediate appeal. And there are songs here with great choruses that are destined to be in the Show of Hands live repertoire for many years.
The album opens with Breme Fell At Hastings. A modern composition from Steve but dealing with matters at the heart of one of the most significant steps in the creation of “the English”. It recounts the hardships of the Saxon population, forced to adapt to their new Norman overlords. Historian Michael Wood adds spoken Saxon to Steve’s vocals, the song having originally been written for his BBC series, The Great British Story. It would be wonderful to understand what he says.
Whilst three tracks are identified as Trad. Arr., the Arr. can be extensive, as in Hambledon Fair. Steve has produced an amalgam of Rambleaway, Derry Down Fair and Brimbledon Fair, adding a tune of his own that he’s called Portsdown Hill. Purists may bridle at this as playing fast and loose with the tradition but for Steve it’s a case of looking back at his own youth in South Hampshire through the lens of traditional songs; a process by no means uncommon in the world of traditional music. As a point of Show of Hands trivia, it’s unusual but not unique that Phil neither plays nor sings on this track. Steve is joined by Miranda on vocals and double bass, Jackie Oates adds vocals and viola while Chris Hoban is on accordion
Chris Hoban’s name appears several times on the album, he wrote Hallows’ Eve and The Old Lych Way and plays and sings on others, as he did on Centenary. He also wrote the haunting song Katrina that appeared on Wake The Union. So, with a contribution to the last three albums, I thought it time to find out a little more about the man. The liner notes describe him as a songwriter from Topsham, where Phil and Steve are based. He moved there in 2010 when he took up a post as head of music at a local school. He’d previously been London based and, before becoming a full time teacher, played in the acoustic scene there, writing and performing his own songs in a band that included Bellowhead’s Pete Flood. Chris describes him as “my most forthright (sometimes brutal!) critic but an incredibly useful person to have around”. Chris’s songs on The Long Way Home, remind us of English traditions that are no longer part of our lives, burial processions along the Lych Way across Dartmoor that have become unnecessary in the modern world or celebrating October 31st not as the Americanised Halloween of ‘trick or treat’ but in the far older tradition of lighting door lanterns to honour the departed. After moving to Topsham it took a while before Chris started to show his songs to Steve but now “from time to time I’ll push another song or two his way”. Judging by the excellent fit of these songs to the feel and mood of the album I don’t think they will be the last to get Steve’s approval.
Steve and Phil have cast a net considerably further than Topsham to capture the writers of the other two ‘guest’ songs. Broom Bezzums might be thought of as Germany’s Show of Hands, two English performers who, having based themselves in Germany, have twice been voted that country’s top folk performers, Bavarian oompah bands eat your heart out. One half of the duo, Andrew Cadie, wrote the modern shanty, Keep Hauling, and there’s no doubt Phil in particular wouldn’t have felt an English roots album could be complete without a strong nautical song. So, Keep Hauling, gets the full Fisherman’s Friends-style chorus treatment courtesy of the enigmatically named Bridge Inn Shandymen. The final ‘guest’ song comes from a source that, at first sight, is also something of a surprise. In Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeill it’s hard to think of two musicians more firmly identified as Scottish. Yet in John Harrison’s Hands they’ve penned a song that celebrates not just Harrison’s remarkable achievement in perfecting a clock accurate and stable enough to allow calculation of longitude on board ship but also highlights Harrison’s traditionally English crime of being from the wrong class to be given credit for such a feat.
The two most traditional songs both have a strong connection to Phil. ‘Twas On One April’s Morning is a classic traditional love song, the ubiquitous Nancy first enthralling and then rejecting a suitor on the grounds that all young men are false. Makes you wonder how the English survived to tell the tale. Phil first acquired it from the singing of Tony Rose, one of his major influences in pre-Show of Hands days, whilst Steve more recently learned a version from John Jones of the Oysterband. Virginia is a song for which Phil has provided a new tune, a tale of deportation not to Van Diemen’s Land but to the American colony of Virginia. It’s fascinating to compare this version to that from Box Fox on his Borrowed Moments album and hear how traditional songs can continue to evolve even after more than two centuries.
The track that most clearly deviates from the English traditional feel infusing the album is Steve’s composition Sweet Bella. On the recent tour they’ve been closing the first half with it and, to quote the chap next to me in the interval bar at Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal, “for a folk band they do a pretty good blues”. It may have nothing to do with English tradition but it resonates with the early, pub gigging days of Show of Hands, it’s part of their own tradition. It also gives them the opportunity to feature their go to mouth organ player, Philip Henry. Both Philip and his partner Hannah Martin feature in the arrangements of several tracks along with Ange Hardy. The list of contributors also reveals that Show of Hands is developing into a family business, Steve’s son Jack making his debut, welcome to the cajon-player’s union, Jack.
Much as I’ve been teasing apart the various elements that make up The Long Way Home, the lingering impression from the album is one of unity. A commonality of purpose that links all the tracks, that speaks of tradition whether the songs were written two months or two centuries ago, that has produced music to please the ear and engage the brain. Steve is quietly proud that his Galway Farmer is so widely known that it’s sometimes mistaken for an Irish traditional song, I’d suggest Hambledon Fair might book him a place in the English faux traditional cannon. Show of Hands’ outstanding reputation has built up over more than two decades, an album of this quality will ensure that it continues to grow.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
The Long Way Home is released January 15th, 2016
Pre-Order it via Amazon