The weather forecast of rain has proved to be wrong, allowing those attending Aylesbury Waterside Theatre to watch Show of Hands a dry passage to their seats. I’m at the stage door reception area waiting to go through to start my interview with Stephen Knightley. Along with Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes they are just about finishing their sound checks.

“So how many tickets have been sold for tonight?” I ask the desk manager. With a quick shuffle of papers she tells me, “Just over 700, plus whatever we get as walk ins (pay on the night)." Then I do my impression of temporary hearing malfunction or questing the information provided. I’m thinking, it’s a little cold and certainly very dark, it’s a Wednesday night in Aylesbury in November. “What 700, just for tonight?” I ask. “Yes 700 and rising, Show of Hands are always popular when they play here,” she adds with a smile.

When I go through to meet Knightley he’s just showered, putting together a hastily arranged sandwich, looking ominously cool and relaxed. His long mane shows little signs of greying and no indication of a receding hairline anytime soon. As I tell him my surprise on the number of fans attending the show, he says the numbers are a little light.

“We’ll probably finish up the evening with around 800 people, which is great. I really appreciate the folks turning out. Ideally we could have done with an extra couple of hundred. Every time you put on a show of this size costs need to be covered. These days we tend to play venues which are 500+ in terms of capacity. Three musicians, Miranda, Phil and myself plus five road crew, so the numbers need to add up.”

As we chat he’s signing copies of the band's latest CD, 'The Long Way Home'...lots of them. “We haven’t toured as Show of Hands for three years, Phil (Beer) and myself have been off doing solo projects and gigs," Knightley explains. "So this tour is about getting back to a more folky English countryside roots feel to our music. To some degree getting away from that over dubbed Americana influence. Over the past five years we’ve played with Richard Shindell, Rodney Branigan, Phil Henry and Hannah Martin. Americana has been a big part of our work. Next year we plan to play as a duo which means we’ll aim for the smaller venues. It means we play at venues we have visited for some time and mix up our playlist as well.”

Knightley continues with an interesting insight to the logistical side of filling theatres.

“If you're going to fill places of this size you probably need to have some TV exposure. That’s how comedians build a following by doing a show or panel game on TV. For us we need something like a Jools Holland show, one of our songs attached to a film or advert, or gigging with, say, Peter Gabriel. That’s the type of thing which takes you to the next level.” Although he knows the formula, Show of Hands aren’t chasing the golden chalice.

“We’ve been around long enough to know you can’t make these types of breaks happen. They tend to come along and then there's a knock on effect resulting in new opportunities.” Knightley knows happenings outside of your control aren’t always for the best.

“To become a name, someone who is recognisable can take away your personal and musical freedom. Is it a nice option to have? I am not so sure. For now it isn’t something we need to worry about,” he concludes.

Show of Hands are proud Devonians having served their musical apprenticeship in the folk clubs and pubs of east Devon. During 1992 they recorded their first album 'Live ‘92'. The album's success allowed them entry onto the festival circuit, touring with Ralph McTell in the autumn of 1993. Knightley and Beer have built a fiercely loyal fan base with respect and admiration of their music from various quarters of the music business. Knightley describes their music in simple terms: English folk.

I ask if they’ve ever thought of changing style or musical direction?

“Well, we’ve tried different styles over the years. Tonight you’ll hear songs which touch on roots and blues influence, but primarily we are a folk duo. The music we’ve recorded over the years is what people come along to hear. To be honest, if we called our style anything other than folk, people would simply disregard the tag and bring us back into the area we are associated with, that being folk,” Knightley explains.

As Show of Hands take to the stage I wonder if I nodded off for a couple of hours and woke up to the encore, such is the volume of applause at their appearance on stage. Show of Hands and Sykes begin the evening by dipping into their acoustic roots with a traditional winter's song, followed by ‘Twas On One April’s Morning;.

A little later in the set they finish 'Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed', the title track from their 2009 album. Knightley tells the assembled audience, “We are all in this together." Indeed they are. There is something reverential about the atmosphere. A respect flows from artists to audience and back. For some I can see the evening is an emotional journey as if they are meeting up with a long lost lover.

I’ve seen Phil Beer, the other half of Show of Hands described as a multi- instrumentalist, which is akin to describing Stephen Hawking as clever. Basically if an instrument has a set of strings attached, Beer can play it - Violin, viola, guitar(s), mandolin, South American cuatro all played throughout the set...the list goes on. His range and timing throughout the show is explanatory. Oh, and his vocals aren’t bad either. It is simply a pleasure to see such a talented musician play live.

Miranda Sykes on double bass and backing vocals has been with Show of Hands on various tours for around ten years. Although she has limited solo spots during the set, her rich vocal harmonies compliment many of the songs in which she is involved during the evening. Any mention of Sykes by Knightley by way of introduction or thank you is met with resounding applause around the theatre.

It is Knightley’s humour, banter and tales, however, which become the show's conduit. He tells a story about how they won the title of 'Greatest Devonians' back in 2006. It was some feat as they were up against Francis Drake, Agatha Christie, Charles Babbage, Muse and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Once the audience understood how the accolade was won (I won’t spoil the punchline), the laughter would have sat well with a Jimmy Carr audience.

Throughout the two part show, Show of Hands cover traditional English folk tunes, sea shanties, tributes to WW1, country fairs and young maidens, the feudal system of 1066, and the wonderful South American themed 'Santiago'.

As for crowd pleasers look no further than 'Cousin Jack', a chorus belted out by over 700 folks is a bit of a spine tingler. But for theatre, anticipation and delivery Show of Hands offer 'Galway Farmer'. If you’ve ever been to Cheltenham Racecourse in November, mingled, mixed and shared a drink with our Irish brethren, this song is for you. A Galway farmer crosses the Irish Sea in search of lady luck. He places a £2000 bet on Galway Bay, a 20-1 outsider. Knightley sets up the horse racing spectacle. Show of Hands ramp up the pace and volume as they take us over fences, stumbles, rattling hoofs, misguided choice of horse, then the last furlongs and final sprint. Beer on violin drives the race on and on at an electrifying tempo, as the audience stamp, clap, holler for Galway Bay to hit the finish line first. Pure theatre, excitement and enjoyment is encapsulated in one song.

Show of Hands have honed their performances over the years to a more mature crowd. There is a mutual respect throughout the evening. Show of Hands come onto stage for the second half to polite applause.

“That’s a bit half hearted,” Knightley tells the audience. They understand the humour so try again with louder applause. “Thank you," says Knightley, “Now we can get started."

Although Show of Hands have released over 25 albums (live / studio), played the Royal Albert Hall, won the BBC2 Folk Awards Best Live Act, Best Duo and Best Original Song award, touring extensively around Europe, somehow they still operate under the radar of wider acclaim. As Knightley told me before the show, “Playing music, playing live is all we ever wanted to do. We enjoy the experience of travel and playing to diverse audiences throughout the UK and Europe.”

There wasn’t a support band on the night which is probably a good decision. The crowd came to see Show of Hands, and any other stage presence may well have been deemed an intrusion.

Word of mouth is always the best form of advertisement. So in order to reach out to the folks who haven't seen Show of Hands play live or heard their range of CDs I’d suggest those Show of Hands faithful fans should tell a friend because quite frankly they don’t know what they're missing.

Related Links:

Commenting On: Interview - Show Of Hands

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

23651 Posted By: jan Boarman (florida, usa)

I live in America, but have seen SOH in concerts several times on trips home, and have seen Phil perform solo. These people have so much talent. Steve's songs, their diversity and the yearning for a countryside and way of life that is fast disappearing, strikes a chord with so many of us. This, with their everyman personalities (& everywoman, sorry Amanda!) makes you feel as if they are there just for you. Yes, the audiences love them. I have met people who go to several concerts on each tour, whether the set is identical or not, just for the experience of watching such showmanship and talent. If I lived home in England, I would most probably be one of those people!

First Previous Next Last