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The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone!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.”
At first glance Ordinary Giants seems like a sequel to Robb Johnson’s wonderful Gentle Men but it isn’t. It’s more of a companion piece; there is no formal spoken narrative – Robb won’t spoon-feed us, although he helps us along here and there – and the album encompasses the last hundred years of British history interleaved with the story of his family and in particular his father, Ron Johnson. It’s rather like an audio advent calendar with each track displaying a snapshot of a moment in time. This is a triple-CD set with a book so it isn’t something you can rush through nor, I suspect, will anyone listen to it in a single sitting.
Although the songs are arranged with a light touch there is a big supporting cast; among them Roy Bailey, Matthew Crampton, Rory McLeod, Phil Odgers, Tom Robinson, Miranda Sykes as the main female voice, Boff Whalley, four community choirs, Frances O’Grady and Dennis Skinner. Robb wrote nearly all the songs – there’s a traditional tune, a couple of borrowed melodies and the assistance of Robinson on ‘Holding Hands With Hitler’. He succeeds in capturing the style of each period, particularly in the first part, covering the years 1918 to 1939 and puts the most appalling words in the mouth of Adam Clayson as the Mosley-supporting Major Utterswine. The problem is that the same words reappear in the third part covering the period from 1970 to the present day.
Inevitably, Ordinary Giants, is a very political record; you’d expect nothing less from Robb, but the politics are embedded in the words of ordinary people and often creep up on you when you’re not expecting them. The first ‘Lou’, one of Frances O’Grady’s three spoken word pieces is a perfect example, starting innocently enough but ending in verbal conflict. There are causes close the Robb’s heart such as ‘Craven Vale Hall’, dated 1958 and celebrating the building of the first post-war care homes.
The final tracks of the second disc and all of the third can be quite painful because Robb’s view is that things haven’t changed that much and it’s hard to argue with him. The songs are peppered with political slogans and he makes his points with humour and sharp insights in songs like ‘Goalkeepers’ and ‘Who Buggered Bognor?’ but beneath that is the realisation that we’re still fighting the same battles in whatever guises they appear.
The only time I saw Grace Petrie on stage, I was bowled over. I bought an EP and was impressed by that. Always her own person and doing things her way, Grace could now be on the verge of a breakthrough. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, Queer As Folk is a properly funded album produced by Matthew Daly, who also plays drums, and mixed by Neil Ferguson. Some stellar friends joined her: Miranda Sykes on bass, Hannah James on accordion, Nancy Kerr on fiddle, Belinda O’Hooley on piano and Caitlin Field on bass and percussion. Grace is powerful enough on her own but this gathering pushes her on to another level.
Queer As Folk opens with ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, a remarkably understated take on Ian Campbell’s ‘Old Man’s Song’ dragged into the 21st century. Its quietness adds to the power of Grace’s words but up next comes an up-tempo reading of Graham Moore’s ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, its pace suggesting a sense of impatience and leaving the listener breathless. ‘This House’ concerns the death of a father, whether Grace’s own we are not told, full of a sense of emptiness like the house he’s left behind. ‘Baby Blue’ is about love betrayed and the powerful ‘Pride’ puts it into context and is where the band comes into its own.
These two songs lead into the superb ‘Black Tie’, which takes the form of a postcard to Grace’s teenage self, reassuring her that it all will work out and containing one of the best rhymes of the year. Grace is affirming her identity here as if we were in any doubt about it. It would be a great single except that it wouldn’t get radio play – the rhyme I mentioned would see to that.
The other cover is ‘Beeswing’. I tend to get a bit protective about Richard Thompson songs but Grace doesn’t need to make many changes except to lose the word “man”. But, and it’s a big but, she misses out the verse about marrying Romany Brown. Why? Is L all right but not B? That’s a disappointment. Nancy and Caitlin give it a folky swing on fiddle and bodhran and it’s one of the best arrangements of the song I’ve heard.
We’re back to politics with ‘Farewell To Welfare’, a song with a really powerful wrap-up but then ‘Iago’ seems to contradict ‘Black Tie’ and I’m still figuring that one out. The closer, ‘Northbound’, sets the life of an itinerant musician to a rocking country beat and is a great way for the record to sign off. Queer As Folk may well turn out to be one of my albums of the year – it’s not perfect but it’s not far off.
Curated by Hannah James and released by Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Resound is a multi-tasking album. Firstly, it’s a tribute to Alan Surtees, founder and organiser of the festival and secondly, it’s a fundraiser for the Alan Surtees Trust which aims to give grants to young musicians and new musical projects. All the music comes from artists who have been associated with Shrewsbury over the years, often through projects commissioned by the festival.
The album has been, for the most part, cleverly sequenced. It opens with Oysterband’s powerful acapella version of ‘Bright Morning Star’ which certainly makes you sit up and pay attention and follows that with Jon Boden’s mighty ‘Audabe’. The foot comes off the loud pedal just a little wiith Patsy Reid’s ‘Thugainn’. I like the way that ‘Song For Lola’ by Lucy Ward is followed by Fay Hield’s ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ – two unashamedly northern voices side by side. Perhaps living in those climes during my formative years has made me equate the accent with authenticity. I wish that Kefaya’s ‘Indignados’ had been placed beside Grace Petrie’s ‘They Shall Not Pass’ – two songs about Spanish politics, albeit separated by several decades should be available to compare and contrast. The Demon Barbers’ version of ‘Ranzo’ is as good as anything they do but perhaps it could have been saved for a big finish.
The album now turns to pastoral themes. ‘The Lincolnshire Song’ by Miranda Sykes is gorgeous (although I’m holding out for the Peak District, Miranda) and Leveret’s ‘Bagpipers’ is one of their gentler pieces. ‘Vanished Birds’, another fine song by Jack Harris is followed by the lightest version of ‘Neil Gow’s Lament’ I’ve ever heard. Hannah modestly saves her own contributions for late in the proceedings. First comes ‘Tuulikki’s Tune’ from her Jigdoll album and then ‘Order & Chaos’ by Lady Maisery.
Karine Polwart’s ‘We’re All Leaving’ makes for an appropriate ending although I can never decide if a record like this is better served with a period of reflection at the end or something rousing and defiant. Whatever you think, you should buy this album – you wiill enjoy it and you’ll be contributing to a good cause.
To describe Glymjack simply as contemporary English folk would be rather inadequate. It is acoustic roots, lyric-driven with a nod to soft rock, peppered with a little Americana, and anchored here by two traditional English songs to establish the home ground. Thus Glymjack arrives all guns blazing with a finely produced sound and a galaxy of star guests that give an unequivocal seal of approval to their debut album Light The Evening Fire.
First, some name checking. In the driving seat is singer-songwriter Greg McDonald (accordion, bass, cuatro, guitar, tenor guitar, mandocello, mandolin, piano, vocals) who has written eight of the ten tracks. Adding flair and colour to the now-touring trio are Gemma Gayner (violins, violas, vocals) and Dickon Collinson (bass). The hallmark of the album is sophisticated arrangements with multi-instrumental and harmonic delights provided by a line-up of well-known guests from the folk world: Phil Beer, Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes, Sam Kelly, Evan Carson, Louise McDonald, Tom Peters and Claire Portman. I read elsewhere that McDonald has been in the Phil Beer band, hence the reciprocal collaboration.
The word glymjack is Victorian slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Many of McDonald’s songs are London-centric and the lyrics clearly reflect current social issues. But here’s my major gripe: why, when the lyrics and subject matter are so important, is there no booklet or word sheet in the CD, or indeed anything that tells you the background to the material? One could argue, I suppose, that if the lyrics are clearly audible (which they are), nothing else is needed. Well, I may be slow, but two hearings later I still don’t quite grasp the meaning of ‘The Wolf Who Cried Boy’. ‘Bright Sparks’ makes reference to folk heroes such as hedge preacher John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 peasants’ revolt, and to the suffragettes. I’ve no doubt that McDonald is a fine song writer, but some of the songs reflect particular events and concerns for which the listener (or is it just me?) needs at least a clue.
‘Bows Of London’ and ‘The Sweet Trinity’ are fine renditions of traditional songs, showcasing one of the many pleasures of the album – the rich harmonies. To conclude – thumbs up for a decidedly delicious and very English set of songs steered admirably by arrangements from the very best of the folk hierarchy.