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The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone!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.”
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.
Produced with Show of Hands’ Phil Beer, and featuring Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes alongside Sam Kelly percussionist Evan Carson and fiddle virtuoso Gemma Gayner, English folk-roots act Glymjack’s debut album Light The Evening Fire is released this month.
Previously described as “a dynamic, fiddle driven force to be reckoned with” (Maverick), or simply “brilliant folk music” (fRoots), Glymjack’s music is pitched somewhere between the gritty Americana of Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen and the string-laden indie-folk of Blue Rose Code.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Greg McDonald’s original songs are unflinching in their dark vision of Brexit Britain. Title track ‘Light The Evening Fire’ steels itself against the coming darkness with angry defiance as McDonald reels off a list of what he’s prepared to burn to get through the night while Knightley and Beer chant “On the fire! On the fire!” Meanwhile the anthemic ‘Made In England’ depicts homeless soldiers sleeping on the streets of London, and the epic ‘Hope Point’ takes a road trip through rural counties where immigrant gangs face exploitation and worse.
There’s traditional English folk music here too, of both the dark-hearted balladic kind on ‘Bows Of London’, and the festival-pleasing kind on a fiery rampage through the seventeenth century traditional tune ‘The Sweet Trinity’.
The album closes with the epic ‘Bright Sparks’, a tribute to two beacons of English progressive politics, fourteenth century radical John Ball and suffragette Emily Davison. Based on a speech given by the late Tony Benn at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival where he and McDonald shared a bill five years earlier, it signs off with an anthemic sing-along as defiant in the face of the Trump era as it is celebratory of its heroes’ inspirational legacy: “When all light’s lost in the dark”, Glymjack’s assembled cast roars, “I just close my eyes and I see bright sparks”.
Fittingly, the name Glymjack is itself a nod to a dark chapter of English folk history, taken from Victorian criminal underworld slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley’s roles in the making of the Light The Evening Fire album mark the creative zenith of a musical relationship that began when a teenage Greg drunkenly cornered the pair with a demo at a gig – an incident, immortalised in the Show Of Hands song ‘Be Lucky’, which would ultimately lead to Beer suggesting the studio collaboration out of which Light The Evening Fire grew.
Throughout 2018, Glymjack tour as an acoustic trio with Greg joined by Gemma and bassist Dickon Collinson, delivering a high energy, harmony-rich set of hard-hitting originals, English folk songs and fiddle tunes.
Almost exactly seven years have passed since Show of Hands last appeared before an audience at Wells Cathedral; an interval of time that many would conclude has seen the world become an ever-more uncertain and unpredictable place. In these days when the news amounts to a cavalcade of increasingly unsettling events its reassuring that some cherished institutions remain steadfast and dependable, enshrining values that continues to inspire. As part of the fittingly titled ‘Sanctuary’ tour it was a joy to see two much revered institutions reunite – musical act and sacred building – each casting the other in new and unexpected light.
The first member of Show of Hands to appear before tonight’s audience – a congregation comprising the band’s staunchly loyal audience and the cathedral’s parishioners – was Phil Beer. Illuminated at the altar, Beer introduced the evenings supporting artist, Kirsty Merryn. His warm words of praise were swiftly borne out by a distinctive set, most notable for Merryn’s liquid clear voice cascading over the deft piano runs of her original compositions. Many of the songs, drawn from Merryn’s debut album, ‘She and I‘ provided a fresh perspective on the achievements of esteemed female figures from history including Jane Austen and Grace Darling. As ever, Show of Hands had picked an artist to accompany them on this tour of cathedrals who genuinely was the ‘special guest’ of the evening rather than a mere supporting artist.
When, after the interval, the band appeared it was, as is so often the case, without any grand gesture or musical fanfare. Instead the performance began with the solitary figure of Steve Knightley walking down the cathedral’s central aisle as he gently intoned the words of ‘The Old Lych Way’, a composition by Topsham songwriter and musician, Chris Hoban. The song focuses on a longer and yet more ancient route that traverses a remote stretch of Dartmoor along which the faithful would bear the deceased to a final resting place at Lydford Church. A suitably contemplative and mystic atmosphere was conjured beneath the Cathedral’s hallowed arches, setting the tone for much of what was to follow. Next came ‘The Preacher’ from 1995 album ‘The Lie of the Land’, a song in which the prayers of a lonesome island-dwelling cleric lead to guilt and self-recrimination.
While some of Show of Hands best loved numbers were absent from this evening’s performance – there was to be no regaling of ‘Cousin Jack’ – this was entirely fitting since the set list had clearly been compiled to highlight the spiritual questing evident in so much of Show of Hands’ material. Phil Beer, a more vocal presence during this evening’s show than is often the case, offered an exquisite rendition of Sydney Carter’s masterpiece ‘The Crow on the Cradle’, a song that focuses on the power of mankind to avoid the horrors of war.
Throughout the evening Show of Hands’ stunning music was complemented by equally impressive lighting effects. The St. Andrew’s Cross, an enormous arched structure that occupies the east end of the nave was often spectacularly lit while the carved stone work that lies immediately behind it was frequently illuminated to produce a striking contrast. As Steve Knightley himself pointed out, the band’s music became in this context just one element of the experience. Perhaps the lighting was at its most dramatic during a rendition of ‘Innocent’s Song’, the words of Cornish poet, Charles Causley set to music. As the song was performed the massive stone backdrop was bathed in red – powerfully representing the blood of the innocents murdered by the biblical King Herod. Another highlight was Phil Beer’s tune ‘Gwithian’, the music’s urgent fiddle-driven rhythm increasingly intensified by the hand claps of an enraptured audience.
At intervals throughout the evening Show of Hands were joined by the Dartmoor Folk Choir whose contributions highlighted the anthemic quality of many of the songs while providing an apt accompaniment for performance in a cathedral. Also present at times to further embellish the music with accordion was Chris Hoban, who Knightley commended as a songwriter who “sometimes writes better songs than me”. When at an earlier point in the evening Show of Hands double-bassist Miranda Sykes, sang a captivating version of Hoban’s song ‘The Lilly and the Rose’ it was difficult not to agree.
The great care evident in the content of this evening’s show in terms of the songs chosen, guest musicians and lighting design all served to elevate Show of Hands’ performance far beyond the ordinary infamous while reconfirming the outstanding quality of so much of their material. An inspiring evening indeed.
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.