Standing ovations for Show Of Hands’ Big Gig

Big Gig
Photograph by Darren Beech

England’s premier folk duo Show of Hands, once described as “the most famous unknown band in Britain”, brought the house down at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Sunday with a ‘pull all the stops out’ show marking their milestone 25th year.

Singer songwriter Steve Knightley and multi instrumental wizard Phil Beer took to the stage of the iconic London venue for the fifth time with a memorable milestone gig which prompted two standing ovations.

Some 5,000 fans descended on the capital not just from all over the UK but also from Canada, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

The first band to ever hold a raffle at the Albert Hall maintained the tradition, raising £4,355 – the most ever – for chosen charities MIND and Great Ormond Street Hospital & Children’s Charity, the main prize being a beautifully crafted cello mandolin made by SoH’s Devon-based instrument makers Oddy Luthiers.

One of British folk music’s most popular acts – and two of the most active ambassadors in the acoustic arena – Knightley and Beer were joined by long-term guest Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals.
A dramatic opening saw the performance of Knightley’s spellbinding song ‘Widecombe Fair’ with Beer appearing high in the organ loft playing an eerie fiddle.

They were soon joined by the Devon’s 30-strong Lost Sound Chorus for the moving ‘The Old Lych Way’ about the ancient Dartmoor trackway along which coffins were carried. The choir returned throughout the evening to swell the sound on some of the band’s best known songs and numbers from most recent albums Centenary and The Long Way Home.

Also taking to the “Kensington village hall” stage were top mandolin player Rex Preston, 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Duo’ winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin and Canada’s hugely entertaining Matt Gordon & Leonard Podolak, their fiddle and banjo music punctuated by outbreaks of clog dancing (joined by Mr Knightley!) and “hamboning” (traditional African American body percussion).

Long-time collaborator, composer and keyboards player Matt Clifford, who famously worked with The Rolling Stones, added to the sound as did Devon teacher Chris Hoban, who has penned some of Show of Hands’ more recent songs including the epic ‘Katrina’ (also performed on the night).

Towards the end of the first set, there was a surprise appearance by renowned Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter who read Siegfried Sassoon’s To Victory in his inimitable way before a performance of the WW1 song ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ while Alice Jones was a solo Morris dancer in ‘Twas on One’s April Morning’.

Steve Knightley also announced a £150,000 crowdfunding appeal to bring an extensive Shrouds Of The Somme art installation to the capital.

Last year Somerset artist Rob Heard painstakingly hand stitched calico shrouds onto 19240 12 inch figures representing every Allied soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – making a powerful artwork that was seen in Exeter and Bristol. Knightley was closely involved in the unique project, serving on the committee.

Now Heard has embarked on making more than 70,000 shrouds to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 in 2018 – commemorating every soldier who died at The Somme with no known grave. It is hoped to display the new work in London for Armistice Day (November 11) next year. The crowdfunding campaign will launch on May 10. shroudsofthesomme.com

Show of Hands’ “anthems” ‘Country Life’, ‘Roots’, and banker-baiting ‘Arrogance Ignorance And Greed’ were all on the set list as well as the traditional favourite ‘The Blue Cockade’. Their trademark ‘Cousin Jack’, about emigrating Cornish miners, was the rousing finale before they stepped back on stage for Knightley’s “hard to believe it’s not traditional” number ‘The Galway Farmer’ and a rousing ‘Santiago’ with the whole company on stage.

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’ was 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.

Big Gig
Photograph by Judith Burrows

Artists’ website: www.showofhands.co.uk

MIRANDA SYKES & REX PRESTON – The Watchmaker’s Wife (Hands On Music HMCD40)

The Watchmaker's WifeWhen I last heard Show Of Hands I couldn’t help but note Miranda Sykes’ contribution to their sound. Not just her double bass playing but particularly her voice and I felt that she should be better known in her own right. The Watchmaker’s Wife is her third album with Rex Preston and the duo is as delicately balanced as a fine watch with each supporting and reinforcing the other.

The title track, written by Miranda and Rex with Chris Difford is a perfect exemplar of what the album is about. How much is drawn from Sonia Taitz’s book, The Watchmaker’s Daughter isn’t spelled out but there are distinct parallels in the dichotomy of the man whose marriage seems loveless leaving his wife to ask “how can he make such beautiful things?”.

Miranda steps into the spotlight again with ‘Bonny Light Horseman’, a beautifully natural reading of the song in which she is the calm at the heart of the storm of Rex’s musical flourishes. Rex tones it down a bit for ‘Going To The West’ which immediately follows it and, for the first time, gives us two of his own songs, ‘Rosie’, a slightly quirky not-love song, and ‘Leaving Song’ which needs no further explanation.

There are two instrumental sets: ‘Swedish’, from Blazin’ Fiddles and Rex’s brilliantly titled ‘(Insert Name)’s Waltz’ and finally Miranda takes the lead on John Doyle’s ‘Exile’s Return’ with just enough Irish in her voice so that, once again, her singing sounds perfectly natural. The Watchmaker’s Wife is a fine album but one which requires thought and attention from the listener.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.sykespreston.com

‘The Watchmaker’s Wife’ live:

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston – new album

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston The Watchmaker's Wife

After spending most of the summer recording their eagerly awaited third album – The Watchmaker’s Wife – Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston will undertake a run of UK tour dates in September showcasing tracks from the new album, due for release in the spring of 2016, along with performing material from their back catalogue.

In the space of just a few years, Miranda and Rex have emerged to become one of the most sought after duos on the English folk/roots scene. The striking combination of the flame headed double bass player and virtuoso mandolin player create music that fRoots magazine sums up perfectly: “A musical partnership made in heaven. Scintillating, sensitive and brilliant.” The duo have a unique connection, which is a pleasure to watch when they share the stage together.

Well known for the last eleven years as a central component of Show of Hands, Miranda has an exquisite and spine-tingling voice, whilst Rex, with his exuberant and flamboyant playing style, has built a reputation as one of the finest mandolin players in the UK. The rare fusion of double bass & mandolin makes for one of the most exciting new pairings on the acoustic roots scene. Miranda & Rex interweave timeless, well chosen covers with one or two Preston originals. Their backgrounds, as well as skilful instrumentation & warm engaging vocals have shaped their unique sound.

Artists’ website: www.sykespreston.com

 

MIRANDA SYKES & REX PRESTON – HANDS ON MUSIC HMCD035

Miranda and Rex play together in The Scoville Units, purveyors of Celtic bluegrass. Miranda is, of course, well known as the third member of Show Of Hands and Rex is a rising star in mandolin-playing circles, working with Cara Dillon and Brian Finnegan.

It’s clear from the start that their backgrounds have shaped their debut album together. The songs are mostly covers with one original instrumental and a traditional arrangement from Rex. The first two songs are by Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart – the latter being a gorgeous gently rocking version of ‘Only One Way’ – and from the first few notes you know that this is something rather special. The sound is incredibly rich and I searched in vain for a list of guest musicians. There is a guitar in there and I’m guessing that Rex plays it but top marks for production whoever it is. Continue reading MIRANDA SYKES & REX PRESTON – HANDS ON MUSIC HMCD035