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The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone!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.”
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.
Celebrating a remarkable 21 year partnership, singer songwriter Steve Knightley and multi instrumentalist Phil Beer headed out on the 29-date “Hand in Hand” tour last month brandishing a brand new double-bill DVD.
Joined by musical chameleon Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals, the tour takes in locations from Cambridge to Chesterfield, Worthing to the Wirral, debut performances at Portsmouth’s The Pyramids and Torquay’s Princess Theatre and a capital show at London’s Cadogan Hall (November 13).
Coinciding with the tour will be the release of the DVD – Live at Shrewsbury Folk Festival and Making the Waking – a unique behind-the-scenes look into the recording of Show of Hands’ 14th studio album, Wake the Union.
The Anglo-American themed studio album released last year was acclaimed by many critics as their best yet and they will continue to showcase it on tour.
The first DVD disc, featuring eight live songs, was recorded at the 2012 Shrewsbury Folk Festival by MicroVideo’s Charles and Heather Denscombe when Show of Hands, together with members of the Urban Soul Orchestra, Exeter duo Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin and Matt Clifford (keyboards and string arrangements), memorably reprised their stand out Royal Albert Hall show from earlier in the year.
It includes songs from the band’s penultimate studio album Arrogance Ignorance and Greed including the dramatic The Dive, IED:Science or Nature and Innocents’ Song/Gwithian as well as favourites from the back catalogue including Exile and The Blue Cockade. Their performance of Knightley’s anthemic Santiago is dedicated on the DVD to the late Vladimir Vega, one of the Chilean exiled musicians with whom Steve and Phil formed the unique 90s band Alianza. Vladimir sadly died this summer but as the musician who introduced Steve and Phil to the cuatro, his legacy lives on in Show of Hands performances.
Making the Waking has been filmed by Wake the Union’s producer Mark Tucker and is a fascinating track-by-track insight into the recording of the 2012 album which also includes “appearances” by the likes of Seth Lakeman and Cormac O’Byrne and a sequence filmed on the Channel Island of Sark, with Andy Cutting and Martin Simpson.
Revealing and often humorous, it’s a chance to learn more about the history of all 14 tracks –Haunt You / Company Town / Now You Know / Katrina / Cruel River / Aunt Maria / Coming Home / Reunion Hill / No Man’s Land / Seven Curses / Home to a Million Thoughts / Who Gets to Feel Good / Stop Copying Me and King of the World.
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