Show of Hands/Richard Shindell (Birmingham 24/11/11) Review

Tagged with: Show of Hands Steve Knightley Phil Beer Miranda Sykes Richard Shindell Birmingham Town Hall Folk England Alianza Arrogance Ignorance Greed AIG Backlog 2 Falmouth Packet Bristol Slaver Glyn Phillips world music review

 Show of Hands (and Richard Shindell) at Birmingham Town Hall (24/11/11)

Now, the folk music of the British Isles is really not my speciality. I like it, listen to it and have both a musical and emotional attachment to it, but I’m not steeped in it in the way that other far more qualified commentators on roots music might be.

However, it is impossible to deny that Show of Hands are one of these islands’ premier bands, curating, performing and re-inventing the songs and melodies of the past, creating new bodies of work for the future, yet living in, reacting to and drawing from the UK of the present - maybe not the one portrayed in the popular media, but speaking to a vast amount of the rootstock of this island, in particular to the English, those quiet, rowdy, diffident, stubborn, awkward, accommodating, gentlemanly buggers who still live here in their millions.

The English don’t have the self-awareness and the sheer street-cred that their neighbours the Celtic nations have acquired over the last five decades or so. The English spent so many centuries subjugating those around them and making them imperially ‘British’ (even those that might lay claim to be descendants of the original 'Brythons') that the decline of their Empire and more recently even their State alongside the evaporation of their popular culture has left the English nervous, anxious, confused, occasionally aggressive and rather bewildered.

For so long they assumed they knew who they were, until the point where everybody else around them stood up and left the party. Poor old John Bull: his wife’s left him, the kids have moved out, his mistress isn’t returning his calls, someone else has bought out his business and not even the milkman delivers to the door any more.

So, what’s all this got to do with a review of a concert? Well, it’s about what Show of Hands represent to me. It’s what strikes me every time I hear their music or anything about them. It’s that synthesis of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’, of past and present, of museum and everyday life, of identity and connection, love of the land, respect for the people, a resistance to the homogenising of culture and history, a search for the truth of this land - which is far more complex than the history books, politicians and papers would have us believe. The songs, music and stories of Show of Hands stir up feelings of belonging that have little to do with the cliches of tourist boards or the slogans of right-wing political parties. This is not their England, it’s ours.

I’d last seen Show of Hands during the mid-1990s as part of the Alianza project with a group of Chilean musicians exploring the fertile grounds and seas of these two maritime nations. However, when I took my seat I really wasn’t sure what to expect after so long.

Birmingham Town Hall is a recently - and beautifully - restored architectural gem based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux right in the heart of a much-maligned city. It just goes to show that whilst equally brilliant art forms and musicians struggle to muster a few score people for a gig, Show of Hands managed to almost fill this large hall on a cold Winter’s night. This was my first surprise - many hundreds of people for a folk gig.

The next one was the variety of appeal - generations apart in age from children up to grandparents and of many cultural and social backgrounds too. High commendation indeed. A crowd no less, that were very responsive and intent on enjoying themselves. I suspected that many had seen the band numerous times before. A musician’s dream: bums on seats, prestigious gig and a willing crowd. Aah! Luxury.

Show of Hands consists of singer, songwriter and guitarist Steve Knightley and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Phil Beer. Joining them on stage and almost a permanent part of the band now was double bassist, Miranda Sykes. For this tour they also had the American songwriter and guitarist Richard Shindell as a support act.

Phil Beer casually strolled on stage first chatting to us all like old friends as he talked about enjoying Birmingham’s annual German Christmas Market taking place right outside the Town Hall and then nonchanantly introduced us to the support act Richard Shindell.

He turned out to be quite a catch, drawing us into his songs gradually. Before the first one, “Are You Happy Now?”, a break-up song which takes place at Halloween, he apologised for what the Americans had done to Halloween. “You people exported it to us as a festival both Christian and pagan, with meaning and tradition. We exported it back to you as a gross obscenity!” . This was followed by “Transit” a story of road rage and apocalypse on Route 80 through the Tri-State Area (shades of Dr Doofenschmirtz for all you Phineas and Ferb fans!), as a nun sets off to visit a jail. It sounds comic, but was really quite tender and sad with a wonderfully uplifting ending.

Songs followed involving subjects such as the life journey of a guitar (“Your Guitar”), a boy soldier writing home to his ma during the American Civil War (“Arrowhead”) and “Reunion Hill” about a woman watching the troops tramp over her land after the same war.

The highlight for me though was a track called “There Goes Mavis” set on a beach at Newcombe Hollow in California. Richard described this as belonging to the genre of the “crumbling sandcastle metaphor song”. He also described it as being about a bunch of guys on a beach. However, the heroine is actually a canary called Mavis who flies into the song! Nothing is quite what it seems. Shindell displayed some wonderful guitar work - involving a very dense and nuanced sound - almost as if there were two guitars playing. The song itself was quite beautiful, mystical with a dreamy quality. Shindell showed himself on this to be a skilful storyteller with an amazing elasticity of voice that pushed and pulled the words around with exquisite dexterity. It was worth coming to see Richard Shindell just for that one song alone.

He was rewarded with a very warm reception from the crowd and even cries for an encore - now there’s a rarity for a support act!

After the break, the lights went down into absolute darkness and Show of Hands launched slowly into "Bristol Slaver", the story of a slaving ship, “bringing capital from pain” - “From my house in Clifton, seeing tall ships, like floating jails”. The lighting on stage was excellent - sparse and highly contrasted, all black and silver, with great use of shadows behind them. The beautiful harmonies from all three on stage were a delicious counterpoint to the awful subject-matter of the song.

So how do you follow something as uncompromising as that? With something completely different of course. “Stop Copying Me” was a chorus song that got the audience singing along, without any need for prompting, with a sort of folk-reggae vibe. The lads made the comment that they didn’t mind people copying their CDs since this shows ‘generosity’ to your friends, rather than ripping them off. I’m still not sure whether this was true or tongue-in-cheek! Any ideas?

We were firmly in their pockets now and so the night rolled on, comfortable in the presence of true professionals. “Hard Shoulder” was a Country Blues song with shades of the beautiful “Where do you go to my lovely?” (Peter Sarstedt) in which Miranda Sykes’s lovely, rich, warm bass sounds stood out. Following on from a funny story about Steve’s Postman turning up in the mosh-pit of a Bruce Springsteen concert was “Youngstown” a Springsteen song about a steel town, performed on fiddle, guitar and bass with Phil singing which led into another industrial community song, "Cousin Jack”, this time set in the copper and tin mining village of SW England where those people who worked in these industries - who emigrated in droves from Cornwall - were known as “Cousin Jacks”. This was obviously a crowd favourite as most of the audience clapped along enthusiastically!

Phil then told a long but once again very funny story about his dad’s attempts to replace the old organ at his local chapel with a Yamaha ‘Work Station’ - an all-singing, all-dancing keyboard/organ. I won’t go into details in case any of you go to a SoH concert, as I don’t want to ruin the punchlines. This is of course led nicely into “The Keys of Canterbury” - a complicated round which to my ears contained smatterings of “29 Ways” and ‘Stairway to Heaven”. Steve and Phil’s ability to connect with seemingly quite disparate groups of people through their music was showcased in the story they told about somehow ending up performing in an Officers’ Club in Germany where theproverbial lead balloon was going down, until they sang an old song from the Napoleonic period entitled “The Blue Cockade”. This struck a chord with all the officers and their wives who had only just found out they were being posted to Afghanistan the next day.  Almost two hundred years apart, two different wars, one song. Who says folk is an irrelevancy?

For me, though the emotional lynchpin of the evening was a song called “Roots”, a sort of medley of English songs all about celebrating Englishness and singing. Ok, it had everything the sing-along crowd desired, with a corking chorus: ‘Haul away boys, let them go out in the wind and rain and snow., We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know, and the rocky shores . . .’. But for me it was the emotive message behind that struck the chord. Without roots, there can be no flower, branch or stem. A cry against Pub TVs, baseball caps and Estuarine English - as Steve shouted out “We need roots!”. Buy that man a pint, a spade and a packet of seed.

Talking of packets, other highlights were the maritime medley “The Falmouth Packet/Haul Away Joe”. Phil sang and played violin solo at first, then joined by Steve and Miranda. Interestingly Steve was operating some sort of electronic pedal to make drum sounds - like an advanced stomp-box - and there was plenty of “haul-away’ chorusing from the audience and diddley-idle-didle-do fiddling from Phil to keep everyone happy. They even dropped the old Cornish Pastiche joke on us . . . Hmmmm!

Strangely enough the weakest point in the night was when they got Richard Shindell to join them on his own track “You Stay Here” with them. Nice tune, all good musicians, but somehow it became less than the sum of its parts, which was a pity. It would probably have remained stronger performed either by the trio alone or as a solo by Shindell. Just my opinion.

The night finished off with their now legendary anthem against political and corporate arrogance, ignorance and greed (“AIG”) done to the rhythmic groove of the Stones’s ‘It’s Alright Now’ and ended up with a West Country love song,"Now You Know". And of course the encore - an uptempo ever-faster song about an Irishman at Cheltenham Races (“The Galway Farmer”).

So what can I say about Show of Hands? They really are worth seeing. You can even take non-folkies with you and they’ll enjoy it, they might even learn something new, if only it’s that the Britain, and especially the England, you think you know, has far more to offer than you can imagine. How many others can combine this kind of mass appeal without losing one jot of integrity? Can I have a show of hands please?

Glyn Phillips

NB: Their 2011 album "Backlog 2" came in at no 13 on the TOP 20 Best World Music Albums of 2011