Their concert at Taunton’s recently reopened Brewhouse Theatre – a preliminary to a national tour – could hardly have been bettered.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, Show Of Hands consists of singer-songwriter Steve Knightley and multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, enriched in recent years by the stylish double-bass playing and, when required, beautiful mezzo voice of Miranda Sykes. Knightley and Beer have been working together for rather more than forty years, and their partnership, like a fine wine, just gets better and better with increasing maturity (though I suspect one or both of them might indignantly reject any suggestion that maturity has played any part in their development).
At the Brewhouse, as is their wont, they performed for the most part Steve Knightley’s own compositions interspersed with a few covers. The idiom may be traditional folk – voice(s), guitar, fiddle (though this is just one of Phil Beer’s many instrumental skills, and he has a fine voice too), double bass; the songs pay due tribute to their roots while simultaneously striking at social and political issues of the day in a manner contemporary politicians prefer to avoid. Which folk music, of course, always did; it only became quaint and inoffensive once people forgot what the songs were really about. Credit to Show Of Hands, among all their other richly deserved credits, for reminding us that folk music isn’t just about ill-advised young women encountering passing soldiers.
Show Of Hands at the Brewhouse gave both aficionados and newcomers a practically perfect evening. Knightley as presenter is perfectly attuned to the responses of a willing audience, and while his principal asset is his phenomenal talent, his looks and charisma do no harm. I don’t have space to comment on every song individually, but I was moved especially by the use of (beautifully sung) traditional folk songs in ‘Battle of the Somme’, and the revisionist adoption of similarly traditional material in ‘Widdecombe Fair’. Sydney Carter’s ‘Crow on the Cradle’ was superbly performed by Beer, and ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ beautifully reinterpreted. And it was wonderful to be reacquainted with the bitter social awareness of ‘Country Life’ and the blistering and perpetually relevant anger of ‘AIG’.
And my all-time favourite ‘Cousin Jack’, played as an encore, made the perfect end to a near-perfect evening.