Show of Hands, UCL Bloomsbury, London
Wednesday 20 May 2009
Perceived as too folky for the mainstream and not enough so for the purists, the Devonian acoustic duo Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, who together with double-bassist Miranda Sykes comprise Show of Hands, occupy their own corner in the field of what might best be described as "English singer-songwriter" music.
Committed, but never preachy or earnest, Knightley flies the flag for English music while adroitly avoiding any "little Englander" leanings. Equally adept at both storytelling and protest songs in the best folk tradition, he can also turn his hand to more light-hearted fare such as a new song about the grounding of the Napoli off the South Devon coast in 2007 and the consequent reinvigoration of the locals' wrecking heritage.
Along with the caustic anti-Banking song "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed", it's one of a number of tunes being road-tested tonight for what promises to be a sparkling new album. They slot in happily among singalong staples like "Roots", "Country Life" and "Cousin Jack", on the choruses of which always a good sign this the audience joins in unprompted.
This is a band which has always projected brilliantly onstage, the songs never failing to outshine their recorded counterparts, so it comes as no surprise when the most affecting moment is produced by Beer and Knightley stepping away from the mics to deliver a tear-pricking rendition of "The Setting/Mary From Dungloe".
Phil Beer provided harmonies and occasional lead vocals, as well as what Knightley terms "the diddley bits" on guitar, mandolin, ukulele and, on a solo cover of Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand", a sublime fiddle. His virtuosity enhanced the strength of the songs, and the clarity of the sound meant that you heard every note and lyric.
Nearing the end of its second decade, this is a band performing at its passionate peak, the partisan audience reaping the benefit of the years of regular touring which has seen Show of Hands build a strong and wide grassroots support, despite a lack of media coverage outside of fRoots magazine and Mike Harding's Radio 2 show.
They pace the show perfectly, remaining professional to the core without ever slipping into slickness. On this showing, anyone who encounters them on the festival circuit this summer is in for a real treat.
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