This year marking their 36th anniversary and their 15th studio album (18th if you count three earlier cassette releases), Devon duo Steve Knightley and Phil Beer have long been an English folk institution, making regular appearances in many a folk awards lists. This latest release sees them returning to their early roots, revisiting staple folk themes across the course of five new Knightly numbers, traditional songs and a selection of covers.
As well as unofficial third member Miranda Sykes on double bass,, it featuring a clutch of collaborators that include Hannah Martin, Phillip Henry, Chris Hoban and, on cajon, Knightley’s teenage son. The album’s bookends also feature fiddler Jackie Oates and ascending star Ange Hardy on “vocal landscape”, opening with ‘Breme Fell At Hastings’, a steady martial beat stompalong Knightley wrote for the BBC TV series The Great British Story, which, presented by Michael Wood (who provides the spoken Saxon here), viewed the death of the titular freeborn farmer as epitomising the subjugation of Saxon culture and identity to the Viking conquerors.
The first of two Hoban-penned tracks arrives with ‘Hallows’ Eve’, the writer playing accordion on a song that, driven by a rousingly anthemic chorus featuring the Bridge Inn Shantymen, explores the British traditions of lantern lighting behind the more familiar Americanised trick or treat. As you’ll have gathered, England and its past loom large here, a theme continued on ‘Hambledon Fair’, an arrangement of a traditional tune and lyrical amalgamation of ‘Rambleaway’, ‘Derry Down Fair’ and ‘Brimbledon Fair’ that, featuring Oates on viola and sharing vocals with Sykes, is inspired by the young Knightley’s rambles over Portland Hill to Hambledon Village.
The title track follows, Knightley’s sprightly fiddle and mandolin-accompanied hymn to love the second time round, and then comes ‘Keep Hauling’, another outing for the massed chorus of drinkers at the Bridge Inn, Topsham where they recorded this concertina-coloured shanty by Andrew Cadie of German-based folk duo Broom Bezzums.
It’s back to trad. arr, and another appearance of folk ballad habitué lovely Nancy, for ‘Twas On One April’s Morning’, Beer taking lead vocal backed by an assemblage of cajon, accordion, fiddle, concertina, guitar, double bass and mouth organ with percussion design from Mark Tucker in an arrangement that flows into instrumental Knightley coda, ‘Isca Rose’.
From that number’s very traditional folk, things shift into 12 bar blues mode for Knightley’s ‘Sweet Bella’, a nod back to their pub playing days that features mandolin and Henry on mouth harp. The second Hoban contribution arrives in the form of ‘The Old Lynch Way’, an account of the pathway winding between the Dartmoor farms and hamlets along which funeral processions were expected to pass en route to St Petroc’s Church in Lydford. Introduced by birdsong and featuring Knightley on lead with Beer and Sykes’ voiced interlacing like monastic echoes, a trio, arrangement for cuatro, bass and mournful fiddle.
The mood lifts with ‘Walk With Me (When The Sun Goes Down)’, a strummed, self-referencing Knightley song that slips in sly lyrical nods to his ‘Country Life’ and ‘Arrogance Ignorance and Greed’, written to raise funds for a documentary about the Sidmouth Folk Festival to be titled ‘A Small, Quiet, English Town’. It’s back to the traditional and Beer on vocals for ‘Virginia’, providing a new tune to a familiar tale of transportation to the American colonies that marks the album’s sole duo recording.
Heading to curtain fall, the penultimate tracks is another cover, this time of Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeill’s ‘John Harrison’s Hands’, a slow-swaying tribute to the 18th century Lincolnshire watchmaker who devised a clock to determine maritime longitude, saving countless lives in the doing. And so, marking the return of Oates and Hardy, the album ends with ‘Mesopotamia’, a sombre, forlorn mandolin and guitar based father’s lament about his young daughter who’s slipped away to follow her lover to war, a song that sounds clear contemporary relevance in today’s turbulent world and, given the land of the title corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Syria and Kuwait, cannot but help evoke thoughts, and perhaps a controversial emotional understanding, of those women leaving England to join their men on whatever side they may be fighting. It may have been a long way home, but the journey was well worth the taking.
Artists’ website: http://www.showofhands.co.uk/
‘Breme Fell At Hastings’ – official video: