SHOW OF HANDS – Roots 2 (Hands On Music HMCD52)

Roots 2As the title says, Roots 2 is the sequel to their first best of collection, one that marks their final tour as a trio with Miranda Sykes, and again trawls their impressive back catalogue for both studio and live recordings, and, while there’s nothing that isn’t already available on previous releases, gathering them together makes for a solid listening experience.

A two-disc release, most of the numbers come from the last four studio albums. while two are takes from the Dog Show Sessions a live CD in collaboration with Track Dogs which recorded at Exeter Cathedral and Eggbeer Farm while two are live recordings from Northcott Theatre in Exeter, taken from a filmed lockdown show streamed in the winter of 2021 and featured on Now We Are Four and another stems from Centenary Live, recorded at Exeter Cathedral in 2016.

Part 1 opens with one of six from Wake The Union, the first featuring Seth Lakeman on bouzouki for the tumbling rhythms of ‘Haunt You’, the others in this set being the simply fingerpicked reflective ‘Home To A Million Thoughts’, the more strident notes of the lost love ‘Now You Know’ Phillip Henry on Dobro and Hannah Martin on fiddle, their aching rendition of Richard Shindell’s Civil War ballad ‘Reunion Hill’. Shindell takes another credit on the disc, Cormac Byrne on bodhran and Beer on lead for ‘Next Best Western’ from their final studio album, Battlefield Dance Floor. There’s a further three selections, the sinuous, deliberate paced ‘Mother Tongue’, a co-write with Johnny Kalsi, who plays tablas featuring Asian vocals by Shahid Khan and Beer on slide, wistful piano ballad ‘Just Enough To Lose’ and Sykes lending vocals as well as double bass, the uplifting encouragement of the anthemic ‘You’ll Get By’.

From Long Way Home comes, a sprightly fiddle and mandolin-accompanied hymn to love the second time round, and ‘Twas On One April’s Morning’ with Beer taking lead backed by cajon, accordion, fiddle, concertina, guitar, double bass and harmonica arrangement that flows into Knightley’s instrumental coda, ‘Isca Rose’. The third, and my personal favourite off that album, is ‘Breme Fell At Hastings’, a steady martial beat stompalong Knightley wrote for the BBC TV series The Great British Story which, featuring fiddler Jackie Oates, Ange Hardy on ‘vocal landscape’ and series presenter Michael Wood on the spoken Saxon intro speaks of the death of the titular freeborn farmer as epitomising the subjugation of Saxon culture and identity to the Viking conquerors.

There’s two live cuts, the pastoral fingerpicked blues lament ‘Country Life’ from Northcott Theatre and, in contrast, the moody six-minute plus ‘Columbus (Didn’t Find America)’ with Track Dogs bringing trumpet, vocals and handclaps for a Spanish vibrancy. The rest of the CD is made up of two from Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed, the first, Oates on lead on vocals, being the stirring lurch of ‘Keys Of Canterbury’, and, Sykes on electric bass and Megson’s Debbie Hanna on vocals, the sinister prowling ‘IED: Science of Nature’.

All albums are also revisited on Part 2, Wake The Union’s Celtic-Americana ‘Cruel River’, Lakeman again on bouzouki, opening proceedings, proceeding into Chris Hoban’s ‘The Old Lych Way’, Beer and Sykes’ voices interlacing like monastic echoes on 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 distant birdsong and featuring an arrangement for cuatro, bass and mournful fiddle.

Two album title tracks are featured with ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, Byrne’s bodhran driving the percussive rhythm with The Bridge Hill Shandy Men on backing vocals, and, producer Stu Hanna on guitar, the rousing Martyn Joseph-like folk rock ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ which, won Best Original Song at the BBC2 Folk Awards. The same album yields the more delicate circling fingerpicking of the world weary ‘The Man I Was’, switching to the far livelier ‘King Of The World’ off Wake The Union with Andy Cutting’s melodeon and handclaps courtesy of Nadia Cal, and, from the same source with BJ Cole on pedal steel, the countrified swayer ‘Who Gets To Feel Good’. From Long Way Home comes ‘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 Steve, was inspired by the young Knightley’s rambles over Portsdown Hill to Hambledon Village. Returning to the dance floor for two further outings, Beer taking time out, Gerry Diver plays an array of instruments while Knightley on cuatro and Sykes on vocals for Kirsty Merryn’s ‘Forfarshire’ with the Shandy Men again in attendance for the rippling percussive rhythms of the literally and metaphorically all at sea ‘Lost’.

The duo’s ear for a good cover is again manifested in two further numbers, one studio, one live, the former being a live fiddle and bodhran-driven version of Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’, the latter, featuring brass and vocals from Track Dogs, a fiddle dancing romp through Steve Earle’s ‘Devil’s Right Hand’, the album being completed with two final live tracks, Track Dogs returning for ‘Recuerdos (Maria)’ with its Spanish guitar and, indeed, part Spanish lyrics, and, Knightley and Beer sitting it out, two seeing Sykes stepping into the vocal spotlight for Jennifer Crook’s Celtic-traditional styled ‘Sea Glass’ with its sparse bodhran and, accompanied by writer Hoban on accordion and The Lost Sound Choir, from Centenary Live, the old time music hall ballad-flavoured ‘The Lily & The Rose’.

Roots 2 is well-assembled compilation that illustrates their ability to embrace and interpret different musical styles without losing sight of their folk roots and to write or cover songs of both political and personal measure with equal emotional investment. If this is indeed a prelude to bringing down the curtain in terms of both albums and tours, fans couldn’t ask for a better valediction.

Mike Davies

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‘Ruby’ – live with Track Dogs: