English roots folk need only three words to summarise it at its best: Show of Hands. The original duo have been making music since the 1980s, and with eleven studio albums and five live albums in their back catalogue as the instrumental side of the band, Phil Beer, told us he couldn’t remember the amount of times they’d played Larmer Tree Festival, which in itself is only about five years older than they are.
“We only end up at hardcore rock festivals once in a blue moon. Generally speaking it is exactly this type of festival which has an incredibly eclectic mix of music on. Of course in actual practice there is no mainstream rock at this particular event at all, it is all a mixture of roots, world music and slightly leftfield stuff, which is one of the things that makes this particular event interesting.”
Understanding the appeal of Show of Hands, whether they represent a type of music long gone or if they are in themselves an entirely original entity in folk, is an interesting thought, and discovering which acts today Phil felt he could relate to provided an unsurprising response:
“There are only really about three to four, major – if that’s even the right word – folk acts, and they are easily definable: one is Eliza Carthy, one is us, one is now Bellowhead and the other one is Kate Rusby; we’re the kind of four “biggest grossing folk acts” if you see what I mean, and that’s kind of it. I think we all operate on the same level and appear to pull the same sizes of audiences at shows and we’re all able to play shows in venues that are generally bigger than the folk scene.”
The band are prolific in churning out material regularly, but of course for the past six years Steve Knightley and Phil haven’t been a duo; with Miranda Sykes bass playing many know them as a three-person act. However Phil gave us a great titbit of information in the announcement that in October, whilst Miranda is busy with other engagements, Steve and Phil will tour as a duo, playing all music prior to the previous four albums, and revisiting long forgotten songs: it’s the Show of Hands you thought you’d never see again.
Phil’s love of acoustic music allowed him to master nearly every stringed instrument known to man, so a key question to ask was what he would tell some Devonshire lad today who wanted to pick one up and show the rest of the world his world (I emphasized this was not a cue for him to spontaneously go into his song ‘Be Lucky’). Summarized, his advice was to get hold of any permutation of the acoustic guitar:
“It’s got to be the guitar because it’s the universal instrument. The guitar works on so many levels; you can play it without a great deal of skill and still get it to do what you need it to do: that’s the beauty of the guitar. It’s portable, it has a wide harmonic range; you can play a full sounding accompaniment, you can either play it delicately finger-picking or you can thrash it to pieces, you can do whatever you choose to do with it.”
For the next seven minutes Phil gave us an entire history of the guitar’s arrival to our shores and how it has impacted our music forever. Whilst you’d be relieved that we eschew those details here, you can’t help but be impressed at someone so skilled and in love with what they do that they can recite its history at a drop of a hat.
The band also have a huge mix of song subjects, from period pieces (‘Tall Ships’), lightweight tracks (‘Are we alright?’) and perhaps most importantly songs critical of the modern world (‘AIG’) and in particular modern England (‘Country Life’). One of their famous tracks that delves into the latter issue is the brilliant if much misunderstood anthem ‘Roots’.
“The very day in the studio that Steve played me the first draft of that song, which I didn’t know he was writing, I said ‘that’s a great song, but you know that it’s going to be misinterpreted, you know for sure’. And there’s a precedent for that, which is of course Bruce Springsteen and ‘Born in the USA’ and the Regan campaign: all those idiots ever heard was the chorus.”
This is in reference to the fact that Springsteen’s song was thought of as a patriotic, jingoistic anthem when really its chorus was ironic of the subject matter, and he demanded its removal from the campaigns. Show of Hands have suffered similar misunderstanding, in that ‘Roots’ was accused of being anti immigration when really it addresses the culture-lost English themselves:
“A lot of people think the words go “I’ve lost Saint George AND the Union Jack” of course it’s not that, the words actually are, and it’s a subtle thing that people miss: “I’ve lost Saint George IN the Union Jack” you see. And then how any idiot can misconstrue the verse: “Indian’s, Asians, Afro, Celts, it’s in the blood below the belt” which is a reference to everyone else’s indigenous music that they seem to be able to seamlessly propagate without any trouble at all, and which we all like, and which is reflected in the bill in an event like this, whereas there seems to be a problem with our own music. Now that’s what the song’s talking about, but we’ve of course had endless trouble with the BNP, sort of…again fudging, not drawing attention to what the song’s actually saying but just looking at the chorus. This of course taken in isolation is a load of cob lace…bollocks.”
Whilst it’s an example of Steve Knightley’s deeper song writing, even the b-sides carry some weight in their lyrics. I wanted to know if culture could be so effortlessly embedded into anything as well as it can in music, to which Phil replied:
“Even the daftest of pop songs that appear to have no inherent meaning at all, to a certain extent the good ones contribute in other ways. It may just be about the little melodic rift that captures everyone’s imagination; it may be about the rhythmic content: there are other reasons for writing songs other than to necessarily express sentiments and such.”
Lastly I asked Phil if, after twenty years Show of Hands was still a musical partnership, or an actual identity for him and Steve now. In actuality, he threw us this last curveball:
“It’s become a brand, in a cultish way, it’s a brand absolutely. We got a friend of ours who’s a sort of hippie paradigm maker; he gets paid millions to go into major corporations and root out all of their institutional problems and write reports about them, and he did a kind of joking one about us about a year ago. He looked into us very thoroughly and his entire description of anything that uses a name rather than the name of the people is a brand name, and over 20 years that’s what it is.”
Words > Graham Ashton