After a triumphant two sets, a standing ovation was rewarded with one last number: the stone-cold Show of Hands classic Santiago. We were about to make an enforced exit, but my wife turned to me and said, ‘We’ve got to stay for this…’
You see, as befitting an Easter Sunday, National Rail chose to make the occasion by carrying out engineering works and laying on a replacement bus service on our usual route home. This meant planning an alternative train journey, and a very tight last connection from the Royal Albert Hall… But we stayed.
That’s because the preceding three-hour concert was an absolute triumph with Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes joined by friends and fellow travellers to celebrate 25 years of the band with a fifth sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall (or Kensington Village Hall as it’s renamed for these occasions). There was the customary raffle and jovial atmosphere of a community gathering, there just happened to be 5,000 of us from across the country (and the world) in one of the grandest concert halls on the planet.
The show started with Steve performing solo on the huge stage with a mesmerising performance of Widdicombe Fair before being joined by Phil on fiddle, high above in the organ loft. Apart from the added theatrics the venue afforded, this was a fitting introduction to what has kept Show of Hands at the top of their game for 25 years.
The core has always been Steve’s dramatic, challenging, brilliant songwriting, impeccably performed and arranged by the group. Last year Ents24 named them as the 13th hardest working band in the UK. But I bet they didn’t factor Steve’s solo gigs and collaborations, Phil’s band and solo concerts, or Miranda’s duo dates with Rex Preston (who also guested on this show). All of their tireless work and dedication was in clear evidence at the Royal Albert Hall. They have no need to ‘up their game’ to fill such a huge venue, catch them at a festival or a folk club (if you’re lucky) and you will witness a similarly stunning performance night after night.
Success in the folk world often means survival. But Show of Hands have surpassed this because they work so hard and care so much. In the pop/rock world, you may get a hit album or a successful single that propels you from pubs and clubs to the Albert Hall. But Steve and Phil have clawed their way to these celebratory concerts by building a dedicated following gig by gig, every night adding friends to the mailing list….
Of course, it’s not just a case of being successful; you have to continue to push forward, create and challenge. Whereas many bands of this longevity might fill a 25th birthday concert with classics from their vintage ‘early years’, it is telling that Show of Hands chose to concentrate on their three latest studio albums.
The bulk of the opening half showcased songs from the BBC Folk Award-nominated The Long Way Home from last year (a conscious return to their Devon folk roots), and the project album of songs and poetry Centenary: Words & Music of the Great War from 2014. Joined by Devon’s 30-strong Lost Sound Chorus (pictured above), these moving songs were driven with even more power thanks to the beautiful swell of voices.
What has also characterised and secured Show of Hand’s longevity is their generosity and the delight they take in promoting and showcasing other performers. So, instead of a support slot, guests for the night were invited on stage to join the band. These included BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Duo winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin and the delightful Canadian banjo and fiddle duo Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak.
The night also featured keyboards player Matt Clifford, and Devon teacher Chris Hoban, composer of some of the band’s most memorable recent songs, including Katrina, which was afforded a stunning performance on the night.
Another special guest joined later in the first half, actor Jim Carter (best known for his part in Downton Abbey) provided a powerful reading of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem To Victory which segued into a mournful performance of the WW1 song Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire. The moving first half closed with another song from The Long Way Home album, ‘Twas on one April Morning, which delightfully featured a solo Morris Dance by Alice Jones.
With the wealth of melancholy songs from the Centenary project forming the bulk of the first half, relief came in the more celebratory second set which included Show of Hands’ offshoot the Wake the Union Band (plus guests), performing songs from the 2012 album which gave them their name. The ‘union’ being songs that span the Atlantic, exploring the connection and conversation between British and American folk traditions.
And it’s an often joyous, invigorating interlude amongst the darker Devon folk tales, particularly the banjo-driven Coo Coo Bird led by Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak. The dancing duo then broke out into a show-stopping ‘hambone’, an astonishing traditional African American body percussion, which has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
So it’s all credit to Phil and Steve for sharing the limelight that they could justifiably have kept to themselves. But despite the talented ensemble they had assembled for their big night out, many of the most heart-stopping moments came from the core trio: Steve’s touching performance of The Dive, and Phil singing another Knightly original, Exile (the song Beer says convinced him to pair up and form Show of Hands in the first place), and Miranda’s vocals on the traditional Blue Cockade.
Although this was a very special night, don’t feel like you’ve missed out (if you did) as there are plenty of opportunities to catch Show of Hands this year. And some of the grandeur of the Albert Hall will be replicated in the forthcoming 18-date Cathedrals Tour, with special guest Kirsty Merryn.
Between songs, banter included Steve’s oft-told tale of why their tours always end with a show at the Exmouth Pavilion. He explains that’s because it’s nearby the Exmouth Folk Club where Steve and Phil started out. ‘It reminds us how far we’ve come,’ says Steve. ‘100 yards.’ Yes, it’s a joke, but it tells you something significant about Show of Hands: they’ve stuck close to their roots, they know where’s home, and they’ve invited all their friends to join in. And they’re still having fun.
As we dashed through the closing doors of the last train home, following a 20-minute sprint to the station, it was absolutely worth staying for Santiago…
A lavishly illustrated 224-page hard-backed souvenir book, marking the band’s 25th year went on sale on the night, entitled No Secrets-a Visual History of Show of Hands.
Tying in with this, the Knightley-penned single No Secrets will be released on Friday (April 21) via Amazon and iTunes. Says Steve: “This started live as a piece of advice for a friend getting married but it is also apt as the ethos of our business and it became the backdrop to the book.”
Show of Hands 25th year continues with a busy UK festival schedule (including Folk by the Oak, Underneath The Stars, Wickham, Sidmouth, Cropredy, Towersey) before a newly announced tour of English cathedrals this autumn (Oct 4-Nov 8), from Chichester to Carlisle, supported by young singer-songwriter Kirsty Merryn.
Their next UK gig is at Curzon Cinema Clevedon, North Somerset (Songs from the Shed present: Curzon Music Festival – Show of Hands are headlining Sunday 21 May): Tickets and details here.
More tour details here: http://www.showofhands.co.uk/live-showofhands/
Photo Credit: Judith Burrows