“One of the great English bands”
Show of Hands are undeniably one of the strongest current forces in acoustic music – England’s finest and most popular roots duo and something of a “people’s band”, regularly voicing the hopes, fears and life stories of scores of people in song.
An alchemist couldn’t have come up with a more potent, magical mix than that of Phil Beer, who can, as The Scotsman observed, “play nearly every stringed instrument known to man” and the inspired Steve Knightley, described by Mike Harding at BBC Radio 2’s 2007 Folk Awards as “one of England’s greatest singer songwriters”.
One of Devon’s greatest success stories started with the guys growing up on opposite sides of the River Exe, though Steve was born in Southampton and Phil hailed from Cornwall. Their teenage kicks were playing in different bands but eventually their paths crossed and they joined forces to play the Exeter pub and club scene before they inevitably took off in different directions.
After gaining a degree at Coventry University, Steve started teaching in London and playing the capital’s rock scene while Phil pursued the life of a pro musician, playing in Arizona Smoke Review and the revered Albion Band.
But when Steve returned to the West Country in the mid 80s they started gigging again and in 1991 Show of Hands was formed.
Unusually their first album was a live one. “Live 92” was recorded at Dorset’s Bull Hotel in Bridport and its excellent reviews helped them break into the festival circuit and tour with Ralph McTell.
After working with exiled Chilean musicians in the band Alianza – which saw them learning the South American cuatro and soaking up new rhythms – Steve wrote such memorable songs as Santiago, Armadas and Columbus (Didn’t Find America).
After their first studio album Beat About the Bush Show of Hands released Lie of the Land in 95 which Q declared “startlingly good” making it their folk album of the year.
But despite an escalating fan base the guys still couldn’t command London gigs. So they thought they’d create a modest one of their own – at the Royal Albert Hall! Hiring the hall to the amusement of the media and the cynicism of sceptics they had the last laugh, with a sold out show. It was a huge gamble but the night of March 24 1996 proved that for this enigmatic, indy duo anything was possible.
Five years later they were at it again, reprising their appearance at Kensington’s “village hall” to celebrate their 10th anniversary and this time the sell-out was recorded by Carlton for the ITV Network.
A particularly productive time followed with another studio album Cold Frontier (2001) and The Path (2003), an instrumental coastal odyssey commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the South West Coast Path.
In 2003 they released Country Life, with its stand out title track that went on to be used as a soundtrack by the Commission for Rural Communities for two films, launched in Westminster. Praised for its”finger on the pulse” topicality about the decline of rural life, Steve was later interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
In 2004 after numerous nominations, Show of Hands struck gold at the BBC Folk Awards, winning the coveted Best Live Act title – the only category voted for by the public.
They were joined by the brilliant Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals for their autumn 2004 UK tour – a tour which triggered a live 22-track double album As You Were.
May 2006 was a defining moment when they unveiled a strident new Show of Hands sound with Witness produced by Grammy-nominated Simon Emmerson and “Mass”of Afro Celts. Songlines called the album “A beautiful portrait of modern rural Britain, intensely compassionate and filled with carefully contained rage”
Described as “a cinematic journey of the West Country” it was widely acclaimed with some of Steve’s finest writing in the title track, The Dive and the stirring Roots – a rally call for the English to get behind their identity and musical heritage spurred by a certain comment By Dr Kim Howells – that his idea of hell was three Somerset folk singers in the pub! Roots found champions in unlikely quarters with some even calling for it to be the new national anthem!
In 2006 they were also somewhat quirkily voted Greatest Devonians in a poll – beating historic figures like Sir Francis Drake and modern day music icons Chris Martin, Muse and Joss Stone while they were later voted the West Country’s favourite musicians in an ITV series and invited to join the Westcountry Hall of Fame.
Despite all their success they have never sold out on the West Country and on St George’s Day 2006 they performed a fund raising gig that helped save a rural Devon post office.
When the time came to think of how best to celebrate their incredible 15-year partnership in 2007, the Albert Hall place beckoned again. This time it sold out rapidly – a testament to the huge popularity they have achieved – not overnight maybe but through hard work and with a sound that continues to dodge the genres and puzzle the industry.
They continued to celebrate their enduring musical partnership last year with a double “Best of” CD, trawling an enviable back catalogue. In the same year they appeared with both Peter Gabriel and Jools Holland.
Two of the most popular ambassadors for acoustic music, their music loses nothing in translation and they have taken it all over the world, from Australia to India, Germany to Canada, the Netherlands to Hong Kong plus key festival appearances including Glastonbury, WOMAD, Cambridge and Celtic Connections.
In 2008 they played nearly 30 UK summer festivals including making their WOMAD debut and headlined the Welsh Proms first Folk Prom. In the autumn they undertook a triple tour including their first standing gig tour and a “Spires and Beams” tour of UK churches, cathedrals and historic buildings with spectacular sell outs at Exeter and Ely Cathedrals.
In early 2009 they returned to Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival for the third time before embarking on solo UK tours and a Show of Hands spring tour. In the summer Phil took time out from the music to fulfill a lifelong dream of crewing in the Tall Ships race and Steve performed solo at festivals including Larmer Tree. Autumn 2009 saw the release of a new studio album ‘Arrogance Ignorance and Greed’, produced by Stu Hanna of Megson, and a 37-date tour of every English county town.
At the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Steve and Phil received a prestigious double accolade when they were named ‘Best Duo’ and also clinched the ‘Best Original Song’ award for Steve’s punchy ‘Arrogance Ignorance and Greed’ title track which has gone on to be one of the most acclaimed – and continually topical! – songs in the SoH repertoire.
This autumn the guys are undertaking two major UK tours – a concert tour and the recently completed Spires and Beams tour which saw them playing sell out gigs at five UK cathedrals as well as Southwell Minster and numerous English churches.
‘Covers 2′ – a new CD of songs that have occasionally featured in live shows has been produced to co-incide with the Autumn 2010 concert tour. Intended for friends and fans only, it was recorded in three sessions in October and intentionally stays very close to the ‘live-trio’ sound with minimal overdubs and production changes.