Steve Knightley is the songwriting force behind Show of Hands, widely acclaimed as the finest acoustic roots duo in England and with three Royal Albert Hall sell-outs to their name.
The Exeter-based singer-songwriter writes the majority of material for the band, which also features multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, and together they won the Best Live Act title in the 2004 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – the only category voted for by the public.
But Steve is also enjoying success as a solo artist. In June 2007 he released the understated but powerful Cruel River, his first solo album in seven years and in May 09 he will release Track of Words-Retraced, so called as it subtly revisits and deconstructs his more mainstream-sounding album of the same name from a decade ago.
He is renowned for his strong, trademark narrative songs which reflect the escapades, hopes and fears not only of people in his native West Country but beyond and he pulls no punches when writing highly literate songs about bigger, global issues.
Born in Southampton where both his grandfathers worked in the docks, Steve moved to Devon with his family at the age of five. Attracted to acoustic music by the likes of Dylan and Baez, he started performing whilst still at school and was playing both guitar and mandocello at the age of 14. He learnt his trade playing folk clubs and bars in the Exeter area, joining forces with Phil Beer before leaving Devon to study politics and history in Coventry and take a postgraduate certificate in education at Sussex University.
He then moved to London where he was involved in the rock scene for six years before relocating to Dorset. There he worked as a supply teacher at a local school where he gave guitar lessons to Polly (PJ) Harvey.
From 1987 Steve worked again with Phil Beer, when Beer was still in The Albion Band and in 1991 what was to be the phenomenally successful Show of Hands was formed. Unusually their first album was a live one and the excellent reviews it garnered helped them break into the festival circuit and tour with Ralph McTell.
In the early part of their career, Show of Hands worked with exiled Chilean musicians in the band Alianza. This saw them soaking up new rhythms and learning the South American cuatro, now one of Steve’s trademark instruments. The experience triggered what many consider to be some of Steve’s finest songs – Santiago, Armadas and Columbus (Didn’t Find America).
They have gone on to record some 17 albums including the acclaimed Country Life, the Knightley-penned title song of which was recently used as the soundtrack for a film made by the Commission for Rural Communities, launched at Westminster.
The rock rant, a biting comment on the desecration of English rural life, was nominated as Best Original Song in the 2004 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
In autumn 2005 Steve gave a new Eastern-sounding treatment to George Harrison’s If I Needed Someone for the album Rubber Folk, the folk industry’s take on The Beatles Rubber Soul album, which was celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Show of Hands’s 2006 studio album Witness, described as “a cinematic journey of the West Country”, has been widely acclaimed and notably features Knightley’s stirring Roots which became their best selling single ever, rising high in the download charts alongside mainstream artists and shortlisted for Best Original Song at the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Calling on the English to rediscover their roots and musical identity it was a direct riposte to minister Kim Howells’s comment that his idea of hell was “three Somerset folk singers in the local pub”. It has enjoyed widespread national airplay from the likes of Bob Harris and Johnnie Walker to Radio Caroline!
Away from Show of Hands, Steve has guested on Mick Jagger’s solo album Goddess in the Doorway and performed as the “folk” element of the striking band Faith, Folk and Anarchy, which also featured songwriters Martyn Joseph and Tom Robinson. He created the band Western Approaches in 2004 – a unique collaboration of West Country songwriters that also included young North Devon artist Jenna and former Mercury nominee, Seth Lakeman. In spring 2005 he embarked, with Martyn Joseph, on The Songwriters’ Tour of the UK and they released the album The Bridgerow Sessions.
After celebrating the 15-year Show of Hands partnership by selling out the Albert Hall for the third time on Easter Sunday 2007 – an unprecedented feat for a band from this genre – Steve showcased his milestone new solo album Cruel River on two UK tours.
That year also saw the release of the ultimate Show of Hands collectable – the double “Best of Show of Hands” album that trawled their prolific and popular back catalogue.
In 2007 he also turned his attentions to album production for the first time – producing Jez Lowe’s Jack Common’s Anthem and the debut album for 19-year-old Devon singer songwriter Jenna, Barefoot and Eager.
But late 2007 was a challenging time for Steve, with his young son Jack being diagnosed with leukaemia, causing him to pull out of the biggest Show of Hands tour to date that autumn, though he managed appearances at two of the shows. Supporters responded with a round of rapid fund-raising in aid of the children’s charity CLIC Sargent, which has played a big role in Jack’s steady recovery.
Happily with Jack responding to ongoing treatment, Steve was able to take to the road again in 2008 with the band playing a record number of over 30 UK festivals that summer.
The start of 2009 saw Steve touring the UK with his album Track of Words…