The mighty English roots duo Show of Hands attracted a loyal audience of cutthroats, crooks and conmen to their show at London's Bloomsbury Theatre. "Is there anything left in England that's not for sale?" blasted the band's front man and singer-songwriter, Steve Knightley, flanked by the multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer and the pair's regular guest, the fiery-haired Miranda Sykes, on double bass.
England, after all, is what this West Country-based band is all about. They champion its culture and defend its underdogs, actively fighting the closure of anything from the last Cornish tin mine to the post offices of rural Devon.
"Cutthroats, Crooks & Conmen" was just one top song in an exuberant set littered with them. Quite how a band as good as this can slip under the mainstream media's radar, while their legion of fans continues to grow, is an ongoing question. It's telling that the only time this much-nominated duo triumphed in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards was the year they opened the Best Live Act vote to the public.
But maybe the message is getting through. This show was introduced by Bob Harris, and there was a posse of household names in the audience for a two-hour set that spanned the band's eclectic back catalogue. Yes, they "do" folk, but they can turn up the heat and do so much more. They launched straight into "Country Life", their rock rant about the desecration of English rural life, with an audience onside and on song from the start.
Polished and theatrical, and aided by striking lighting effects, they breezed through Knightley originals, from "The Dive", a true story that has a touching parent-child theme, to "Roots", a rasping riposte to the MP Kim Howells's remark that his idea of hell was being in a pub "listening to three Somerset folk singers". Knightley's hell would be "pubs where no one ever sings at all".
New to the set was the stand-out "Keys of Canterbury", a traditional folk song given an arresting arrangement and featuring brilliant guitar work from Beer. And no show would be complete without their anthem to Cornish miners ,"Cousin Jack". Sublime covers included Little Feat's "Willin'" and Peter Gabriel's "Secret World", proving that they can work their magic on material other than their own.
They play a host of instruments between them, have an enviable rapport with their audience and somehow manage to make each gig fresh. Conmen they're not. If you can find a more inspired, engaging and professional acoustic roots duo in Britain, take me to them.
Pat Cullen, Management trainer, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
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