Show of Hands RootsThe best  (so far) from one of the UK's best roots artists. Great value.

Label: Hands On Music
Length: 2 CDs – 76 + 78 mins

The first thing that strikes you about this 2-disc compilation is how big it is. It feels thick enough to contain 4 discs. But a musical summary of this duo has to be big to house all its heart and talent.

Show of Hands is Steve Knightley as the charismatic front man, chief songwriter and primary stringed instrument player (guitar, mandocello, cuatro), while Phil Beer plays fiddle, sings harmony, and plays a similar selection of stringed instruments. This shared talent is a large appeal of the duo. They are expert in both selecting the right instruments for the song and getting a full range of sounds from them, including percussive ones.

With fourteen albums released so far it would have been a difficult job selecting tracks. Knightley and Beer chose pieces from each album for the first disc, while fans chose for the second. It must say something for the tracks chosen that this collection is still without great songs like "The Flood" or their "If I Needed Someone" on the Rubber Folk compilation (although "The Keeper" could easily have made way for either).

Knightley's excellent song writing has developed over recent years and several recent tracks would have to be on a best-of set. That clearly includes the stirring title track, and I strongly recommend anyone new to the band to watch it on YouTube. It also makes me wonder who else – apart from Billy Bragg – is currently questioning and championing what it truly means to be British. Knightley wrote the song as a response to the Minister of Culture, Kim Howells:

A Minister said his vision of hell is three folk singers in a pub near Wells.
Well I've got a vision of urban sprawl. It's pubs where no one ever sings at alI
And everyone stares at a great big screen.
Over-paid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps ...
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we've come from?
I've lost St George in the Union Jack. It's my flag too and I want it back.

Seed, bud, flower, fruit never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoots – we need roots.

That's the passion that flames through this collection and Knightley's voice shows how much he means it. It's a song that builds on the title track of 2003's Country Life, several songs from which are featured here. More specifically, in "Cousin Jack" (one of four songs re-recorded to improve the originals) the duo give a voice to those from their neighbouring Cornwall:

This land is barren and broken, Scarred like the face of the moon
Our tongue is no longer spoken. Towns all around face ruin.

Skill aside, one of the key appeals of the band is their ability to tell stories, whether it's the heart-rending regrets and injustice of "Widecombe Fair," the jealousy-induced sadness of "The Preacher" or the tale of a musical friendship in "Hard Shoulder."

Sometimes the intensity of the stories – or poignant expressions of loss, as in "The Exile" – leave you wanting more upbeat stuff, especially in a set of over two hours, but it is easy to see how the more melancholy songs got included. It's the same logic that actors have, finding the pleasant characters less satisfying to play. Anyway, isn't much folk music meant to be about tragedy?

I'm with the band over the fans on this release. Disc two doesn't have quite the same edge as the first, partly because of Beer's weaker vocals on "The Blind Fiddler," and maybe because the band chose the best songs for the first; but it still offers such great pieces as "The Bristol Slaver," Billy Joel's "The Downeaster Alexa" and the excellent, slightly oriental "Blackwaterside."

Considering their instrumental prowess, there is surprisingly little without words here. Apart from the first three minutes of the "Falmouth Packet / Haul Away Joe" medley, where Beer gets a chance to shine on fiddle, we only get "Port Isaac" from The Path, a wholly instrumental disc that celebrates the 25th anniversary of the South West path being opened around the Devon / Cornwall coast.

My only complaints are a few slightly missed notes and that with so many songs written by Knightley, the tunes can feel a bit similar if you listen to both discs straight off.

The booklet also deserves a mention: pushing thirty pages, it lists all credits, has the lyrics to all of the first disc, contains a summary of the main albums and has a history of the band.

This is a very fine collection and an excellent preview of what else is available from one of the very best roots acts in the UK.


Derek Walker

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