Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from Show Of Hands, a band that is one of the most recognized Folk acts of the 21st Century. So much so I’m writing this review with some trepidation as I only became aware of them when they toured their last album with the wonderful Megan Henwood (who I’d really gone to see!!) in 2016.
With eight new original songs from Steve Knightly, this thirteen track album doesn’t disappoint. Regular Show Of Hands gig goers will be familiar with many of them as they have been ‘road tested’ by the band either at solo gigs or together as band. An example being the Cornish reggae ‘Dreckley’ which Steve performed at Towersey (which has become a bit of an earworm and is now in my head all the time).
As well as Cornish reggae, there are other diverse sounds such as the Eastern feel to ‘Mother Tongue’, a really full sounding track which rolls along at a steady pace and has a haunting feel to it.
This album has a fourth member with Cormac Byrne (who toured with them last autumn) adding percussion to Miranda Sykes double bass, and Phil and Steve’s multi instrument contributions. There are also contributions on keyboards from Matt Clifford.
The album includes the Kirsty Merryn song ‘Forfarshire’ on which Steve sang on her album She And I, this version has Miranda joining Steve on vocals and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s album, on a collection of instruments from mandolin to percussion. Miranda also takes the lead vocal on ‘Make The Right Noises’.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’, is given great treatment by the band and although I don’t know the original I suspect this is a much jauntier version. Phil’s vocals come to the fore on Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’, another song I remember from live shows and Adrian Mannering’s ‘My True Love’.
The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone! So this is a great listen, but to get the full Show Of Hands effect go and see them live as they are consummate storytellers, entertainers and musicians and you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
With its arresting cover of a felled marionette, Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from one of the most prized acts on the folk roots circuit.
Show of Hands’ first key release in more than three years, the 13-track album brings eight keenly awaited new songs (and a co-write) from the pen of Steve Knightley, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most inspired and original songwriters.
Phil Beer is the ‘master decorator’ of the songs – a brilliant, consummate multi-instrumentalist while long term third member Miranda Sykes is back on board with her eloquent double bass and vocals after her sabbatical – and Cormac Byrne and his feted percussion skills (witnessed on last autumn’s UK tour) bring a vibrant fresh dimension to the party.
Rolling Stones collaborator Matt Clifford adds his keyboard skills to some tracks and an impromptu collective known as The Bridge Hill Shanty Men are the icing on the cake, weighing in with rousing choruses.
Possibly their most commercial release to date, Battlefield Dance Floor is an exuberant, lush, full-blooded album co-produced by the in-demand Mark Tucker and Knightley – Show of Hands’ first release since 2016’s The Long Way Home.
An album of broad brushstrokes, it mixes songs of despair and displacement, emphatic songs, tongue-in-cheek songs, poignant songs and carefully chosen covers into a classic Show of Hands package with wide appeal.
Knightley is a highly talented songwriter who has a great knack in addressing serious and pertinent issues with really catchy lyrics. Top class performances are guaranteed wherever they play” – Songlines
It bursts straight in with Knightley’s ‘Lost’ – a slickly produced, multi-layered and poetic opener – on the surface a number inspired by the story of doomed Devon sailor Donald Crowhurst who died while competing in the 1968 single-handed, round the world Golden Globe Race –but with a deeper theme summed up by Knightley as “a maritime-themed song about masculine despair.”
Catching the listener unawares the mood swerves abruptly to the upbeat, jaunty, genre-hopping title track as Bhangra meets Morris, a seed sown by Show of Hands’ recent close encounters with Johnny Kalsi’s The Dhol Foundation.
Politics and history graduate Knightley name checks some of the greats in history (Wellington, Drake, Churchill, Monty) in this savvy song of eve-of-battle drunkenness with its catchy rugby chant style chorus. Juxtaposing battle readiness with pre-battle abandon it travels through time from the Battle of Agincourt to D-Day and is littered with clever lyrics: “It’s a ballet not a battle/A salsa not a siege” and its ‘Tomorrow it’s a battlefield/tonight it is a dance floor” refrain.
A trademark Knightley song is shaped in the sublime ‘Just Enough To Lose’ – a poignant tale of failing love delivered by his distinctive voice. “It was just between the sowing and the reaping /You told me our crop was bound to fail’, the regret underlined by Beer’s beautifully judged fiddle and Clifford’s keyboards.
Some years ago Show of Hands joined forces with exiled Chilean musicians to form the band Alianza so the theme of displacement is one well known to them and here it is explored in the Knightley-Johnny Kalsi co-write ‘Mother Tongue’, a stand-out track on the album penned soon after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The atmosphere-charged song is given a haunting, spiritual edge by the enigmatic chanting of British-Asian performer Shahid Khan.
There are songs with a lighter touch – the percussive, tongue in cheek ‘Cornish reggae’ of ‘Dreckley’, the tale of a Home Counties relationship threatened by the lure of the West Country replete with pasties and Poldark! It even includes a nod to The Great British Scone Debate – clotted cream or jam first on your Devonshire scone?!
Sykes takes lead vocal on the wry Knightley original ‘Make The Right Noises’, a cynical look at how we fake concern and enthusiasm because we think we should – concluding that ‘of the virtues sincerity is the most underrated’.
It’s over to Beer to take centre stage on a cover of Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’ – a gem of a road song which suits his voice – and flawless guitar work– perfectly while he also takes the microphone to deliver ‘My True Love’ – a gentle ballad written by Dubliner Adrian Mannering who Steve and Phil encountered on the Brighton folk scene back in their 20s.
‘You’ll Get By’ is a song of hope and reassurance for the older generation facing the array of life’s ups and downs (not just the province of the young!) and drums roll as ‘Swift And Bold’ marches in. A Knightley song written for 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment at a special celebratory concert at their Exeter HQ – at which to his surprise he was made an Honorary Rifleman – brings the battlefield back into view, with the Bridge Hill Shanty Men in full flow. Named after the regimental motto it’s a song which Steve was proud to write.
He says: “Being awarded the title of Honorary Rifleman meant I joined my grandfather and step brother in re-establishing a close relationship with the regiment.”
Steve also revisits a haunting song he first sang on Kirsty Merryn’s debut album She And I.
Merryn’s spellbinding ‘Forfarshire’ tells of lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling and her father William and Grace’s heroic rescue of shipwrecked mariners. In this version Steve is joined by Miranda and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s 2017 release. A useful man to know Gerry also plays myriad instruments on the track – mandolin, piano, fiddle, bass guitar, tenor guitar and percussion.
The album ends with ‘No Secrets’, released as a single to coincide with Show of Hands’ incredible fifth sell out of the Royal Albert Hall in 2017, celebrating 25 years of this unique band. Upbeat and breezy Steve describes it as a distillation of some sage advice given to a fellow folky on his wedding eve.
A classy cornucopia, it’s an album that successfully melds vintage Show of Hands and brand new material, infusing influences old and new and this time – as a four strong band – with even greater depth and panache.
Says Steve: “With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we’ve dreamed of making for twenty five years!”
The music is sharp and the armoury is strong. Battlefield Dance Floor reinvigorates Show of Hands’ unshakeable position at the front line of folk.
Show of Hands will showcase songs from Battlefield Dance Floor on a 22-date autumn-winter tour of England and Wales (October 30-December 7). The album will be officially released on September 27, 2019 under licence to Proper Music Publishing and will be distributed by Proper Records.
Steve Knightley has said “Show of Hands is still a duo consisting of Steve and Phil. Miranda and Cormac have solo careers in their own right and whenever they join us they are always name checked as such! We are absolutely delighted to have them on board for this year’s Autumn tour and next year’s festival season.”
Martyn Joseph released Here Come The Young on January 25th. I imagine most people reading Folking.com will know Martyn Joseph, but in case he’s new to you, Joseph is a multi-award winning singer and songwriter. His lyrics spring from an internationalist and humanitarian belief in people and their ability to make the world a better place; his music has that rare ability to draw you in on first hearing – and years later you’re still playing it because you’re not yet sated by the songs; his live performances are compelling.
That’s rather a lot for a new album to live up to – but it does. Here Come The Young was produced by Gerry Diver, who apparently took Joseph outside his comfort zone and the resulting album, while still being very recognisably the same artist, has an even greater energy and depth of sound than previous albums: Martyn Joseph plus, perhaps? Bob Harris has described Here Come The Young as “Strong, powerful and brave, it takes Martyn’s songs to a new, exciting and challenging place”.
The video below is to the title track and would give an excellent introduction both to Joseph the artist and to this particular album. The song, which looks outward onto our world, is a simple statement of challenge and hope that the young who are tired of so much of our unequal socio-enviro-political world “might just save the day”. The powerful graphics on the video enhance the track even further.
By contrast, ‘Oh My Soul’ turns inwards, asking at us to believe in our “heart’s poetry” and has an exhortation in the chorus as part of the quatrain “Oh my soul/Let me get out of your way/Oh my soul/Wake up and seize the day”.
“We are a chorus of many” is central to ‘Love’s Majority’, a classic Martyn Joseph song with a quietly expressive vocal and the ability to merge poetry into song in a verse like “We’re not just straining for the echoes/Of all the vision we hold dear/We’re looking for the common threads of love/That bind us truly human here”.
I don’t know if it’s the best song, but among many powerful tracks on the album ‘Driving Her Back To London’ is the one that tears most at my heart (in a good way). It’s a song about inter-generational swapping of tunes on iPhones “She plays Kings Of Leon I play her rolling Stones……I play you Bruce you play me Muse” and builds to a wider reflection of uncritical love – it’s something I’ve done, and this track captures the moment perfectly.
‘Take Back The Sky’ is written in memory of a young Palestinian medic, shot in Gaza; ‘Summer Has A Way of Finding You’ has the simplest arrangement (vocal, piano and cello), a complement to the more up-tempo band sound of ‘Get Back To You’ and the almost bluesy ‘This Glass’ – the latter a song which asks us to take our half-filled glass and fill it up with things of beauty for the human spirit. ‘Nothing Is Lost in Love’ is not only a tribute to the power of love but I’d imagine will become as much of a song for an audience to quietly sing along with several thousand full marquees have done previously with ‘On My Way’.
I’ll finish with ‘Communion’ in the middle of the album, which has the distinctive musical depth I mentioned earlier. I know of no other artist who could both write lines like “When I make the bed, it’s like breaking bread/I stand in our room and I fall in communion with you” and make them sound as pure as poetry when they are sung. Similarly the chorus:
“So when we’re all cried out from singing We’re gonna rise up and sing it again And when the light goes down we’re gonna stoke the fire And bring it back to life, bring it back to life again”.
These are images which can be seen as purely descriptive, but which are surely metaphors for hope. And, as ever with Martyn Joseph, these aren’t treatises, these are songs – when you hear them, you want to sing along.
Here Come The Young is a great addition to Joseph’s already impressive series of albums. He is on tour in Germany from February 15th and then in the USA before returning to the UK from mid-May
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph returns with new album Here Come The Young released January 25th 2019 via Pipe Records. Produced by Gerry Diver (Tom Robinson, Lisa Knapp, Sam Lee), Martyn was encouraged outside his comfort zone and the result is a career defining record.
Martyn says of his new album, “The songs are exploring uncertainty to varying degrees through different subject matter both in the personal and political. I hope for those who listen it will be the sort of record that takes you on a journey and leaves you buoyed and hopeful at the end, despite the fact that we go to a few tough places.”
Born in Penarth near Cardiff, Martyn is gifted with the rare ability to speak to the soul with his expressive and poignant lyrics and has enjoyed a career spanning 35 years to date, over a half a million record sales and thousands of live performances. He has created his own style and reputation as a stellar songwriter, jaw-dropping guitar player and mesmerising performer, and social justice is an essential part of his music, which has been recognised with various humanitarian awards and plaudits. In 2014, he launched Let Yourself Trust, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to challenge injustice wherever it’s found, educating via advocacy, campaigning for human rights, and raising issues that have been forgotten or ignored, via fundraising initiatives. To date they have raised over a quarter of a million pounds. He’s also Patron of Advantage Africa and Festival Spirit in the UK and Project Somos in Canada/Guatemala.
On Here Come The Young, his songs are imbued with an optimism at a time when it is not easily found. Running throughout the album is a sense of hope and belief in the good of the majority, and that this will overcome the loud, cynical noise that pervades. For Joseph, songs are photographs of moments and visions be they good or bad, his lyrics encourage people to fight fear, cynicism and negativity and the rhetoric of those who hold power.
The title track ‘Here Come The Young’ suggests the young don’t have the same baggage of past generations and are more open and inclusive On ‘Loves Majority’, a protest song of sorts, the greater collective good will always outweigh the bad. There is a heart-breaking tribute to those who work for the betterment of others on ‘This Glass’. Self-doubt is the subject in ‘Oh My Soul’, encouraging belief in one’s journey. Six years ago, Martyn visited the West Bank in Palestine to play a festival and this became a catalyst to him forming a non-profit organisation to work with grassroots projects across the world. It was his experience in Gaza that lead him to write ‘Take Back The Sky’, where young kids fly kites as a symbol of freedom “the wrist that holds the string of dreams for one brief moment takes back the sky”.
Martyn has previously toured with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Jools Holland, Ani DiFranco, Suzanne Vega, Mike and The Mechanics, Joan Armatrading, Celine Dion and Shirley Bassey. In 2016, in addition to playing over 170 shows worldwide, he was asked by the EFDSS and British Parliament to write and perform as part of Sweet Liberties with Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter and Maz O’Connor to mark 800 years of British democracy. One of his songs from this, “Nye” celebrating Nye Bevan, the author of the NHS, has been enthusiastically received by audiences everywhere, as well as having BBC national airplay on Mark Radcliffe’s Folk Show and Tom Robinson’s 6 Music show.
“Concerning Love, Madness & Obsession” is what is says. I’m never sure what to expect from Naomi Bedford but I’m not sure that this was it. Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me sort of picks up on Tales From The Weeping Willow except that it’s more Americana, verging on C&W. I confess that I listened to it three times through before I even felt able to venture an opinion.
The first track, ‘We’ve Hardly Started Yet’ is pure country. I’m guessing that it’s about two people in the prime of middle life rejoicing that they still have lots to look forward to. Probably autobiographical, then. ‘Misty, Golden Road’ picks up on the same theme, this time reflecting on the places they’ve been and the things they’ve done and featuring Ben Walker’s banjo. Then comes ‘The Cruel Mother’, located in New York to accommodate the arrangement. It seems oddly placed given that it’s followed by ‘The Still Want You Blues’ with Andy Summers’ slide guitar. Things get even stranger, now. Percy Bysshe Shelley could never have imagined ‘Young Parson Richards’ sounding like this. It’s not the most pleasant poem but it takes Gerry Diver – who else – to really bring out the oddness in it. This track also supplies the album’s title.
Paul Simmonds wrote six of the songs here but mostly takes a back seat to Naomi when it comes to lead vocals. An exception is ‘Ballad Of A Self Made Man’, which Paul might have considered for The Men They Couldn’t Hang but it isn’t really them although it does have the political edge of their best work. ‘Ramshackle House’ revisits and updates ‘Misty, Golden Road’ then it’s Naomi’s turn with ‘I Hate You’, reminiscent of ‘Positively 4th Street’ but with rather more empathy.
Finally, Paul’s ‘Better Than The Best’ is a sort of song of praise to his partner, Naomi. I’ve omitted mention of a couple of titles, mainly because I’m still figuring them out but Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me is an album that I’ve really enjoyed getting to grips with.
Kirsty Merryn hails originally from the New Forest but is now, inevitably, based in London where the action is. She & I is her debut album; an ambitious work but also accomplished and confident.
The songs are about or dedicated to influential women except the opener, ‘The Pit And Pugilist’. It’s about Kirsty’s great-great-grandfather and isn’t as macabre as the title suggests – Tommy Mitchell was a miner and boxing champion from Derbyshire and his story roots the album somehow. Listening for the first time without paying too much attention to the lyric the song had Sandy Denny written all over it. There is something about the structure, Kirsty’s enunciation, her piano accompaniment and the opening line “Bitter the winter and petrified ground”. I was tempted to ask “what else have you got?”.
What she had was ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ and then I paid attention. The song is dedicated to Nancy Mitford, author of The Loved One, and Henrietta Lacks, who was still known by the pseudonym Helen Lane when I was at school. Look up her fascinating story for a full explanation. The song is a bluesy shuffle built around the rhythms of Tom Grashion’s drums and the multi-instrumental and production skills of Gerry Diver.
The other influential women include Lady Hamilton portrayed as ‘The Fair Tea Maker Of Edgware Row’ and Grace Darling, heroine of the ‘Forfarshire’, with Steve Knightley singing the role of her father, William. The next two are less well known. Georgina Houghton was a Victorian spiritualist and Annie Edson Taylor was the ‘Queen Of The Mist’, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The story of ‘Delilah And Samson’ is familiar enough – Luke Jackson sings the male part – and ‘The Birds Are Drunk’ is a murder ballad observed by an anonymous protagonist who may well be the victim’s ghost.
Diver’s production is commendably restrained but always atmospheric, leaving Kirsty’s words front and centre. She frequently takes an alternative view of a story so ‘Forfarshire’ isn’t an heroic ballad but more of a ghost story and we are left to decide whether these are the ghosts of those who perished or of Grace herself, who died a few short years later. In fact every song has lines that demand your attention – I particularly like the idea of Emma Hamilton considering a drink of the brandy that her lover was brought home in.
She & I is a remarkable debut album, packed with imaginative ideas and superb songwriting.