Show of Hands : Battlefield Dance Floor27 September 2019 : Proper Records
I first saw Show of Hands when Beat Around the Bush, their debut studio CD, was released a quarter of a century ago - once in a packed Somerset village hall and then again a week or two later in a Taunton pub.
Even then the duo's performances were honed and spellbinding, and the gigs were the beginning of an endless series of understated Show of Hands spectaculars I have seen since - in concert halls, churches and grand buildings. The band's recorded output has always done justice to their stagecraft and musicianship.
There'd be no disgrace if they were flagging by now; Battlefield Dance Floor is their eighteenth studio LP. But they have been rejuvenated by a new member, percussionist Cormac Byrne, and a new set of songs to record, with Steve Knightley's writing proving as strong as ever.
For this album the expanded core band - multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, the deft guitar and still gravel voice of Knightley, Miranda Sykes (returning from sabbatical on double bass and vocals) and Cormac Byrne's versatile backing - are often enhanced by guest appearances (including Rolling Stones' collaborator Matt Clifford on keyboards). It has helped them create a layered, full-bodied work.
To fans, much, but not all, of the album will feel familiar - and it is not hard to get an immediate footing. Battlefield Dance Floor opens with an archetypal Show of Hands song, Lost, described by Knightley as "a maritime-themed song about masculine despair." Nothing if not safe thematic ground.
Yet things then take a sudden, unorthodox turn with the album's title track, an effervescent mix of Bhangra and Morris, informed by a close association with Johnny Kalsi's The Dhol Foundation - the result a triumphant, intoxicating swirl of pre-battle verses that dance across military history, punctuated by a bar-room chorus.
As a respite from the title track's insistent groove, Just Enough to Lose is a plaintive tale of a relationship failing, with the poignant keyboard part of Matt Clifford complimenting Beer's heart-aching fiddle.
It is followed by Mother Tongue, the album's subtle political centre piece.
Knightley co-wrote Mother Tongue with Johnny Kalsi, sparked by the 2016 Brexit referendum - it is a song of displacement from homeland expressed through loss of language, given an edge by the drifting, wordless incantation of British-Asian vocalist, Shahid Khan.
The next adjustment in tone is for You'll Get By, a breezy song of late-middle age hope before a beautiful rendition of Forfarshire, a track written and recorded by Kirsty Merryn for her debut 'She and I'.
Knightley sang on Merryn's original version - a song sketching poetically the story of light housekeeper's daughter Grace and her father William Darling's fearless rescue of nine marooned seaman from a paddle-steamer. Here, Miranda Sykes' sublime vocal answering Knightley's despair and guest Gerry Driver's multi-instrumental contribution are essential for the impact of the song's affecting ebb and flow.
Leonard Cohen's song, First We Take Manhattan was first recorded by Jennifer Warnes in 1986, and by Show of Hands on Backlog 1987 - 1991, where, in truth, it was not as fully realised as it is this time out.
Listen back and you can hear how Knightley's ability to add drama to a narrative has grown over time - and there is real energy in the percussive drive Cormac Byrne delivers to the track. As you'd expect Cohen's song is a lyrically sophisticated, tangential piece - Show of Hands' new version has the mood of Warnes' original reading, with Phil Beer's tense fiddle (rather than Warnes' studio cohort Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar) animating the music masterfully.
The album softly shifts through genres and perspectives like a professional chauffeur smoothly changes gear.
There's a hint of country to Make the Right Noises, again sung by Sykes, a Knightley composition about insincerity.
Dreckley offers Cornish seaside reggae, and tells of a Home Counties relationship torn by homesickness for the west, and then there's more Americana influence as Phil Beer sings Richard Shindell's road song, Next Best Western, with all its weary resignation gracefully expressed.
Martial drums and a male voiced choir frame Swift and Bold - which arose as Steve Knightley was asked to compose a piece for Devon's 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment, a unit his step brother and grandfather had served in. The title is the regimental motto; the song is a rousing celebration of history and service.
Dublin native and balladeer Adrian Mannering's wrote My True Love, the penultimate track - a tender song Show of Hands have known for decades, but only recently added to concert set lists. It is followed by the gliding folk-pop of No Secrets to close the LP, written by Knightley from advice he gave to a 'well-known young folky' on his wedding's eve.
Perhaps looking back at where they have been musically over decades, Battlefield Dance Floor offers a smorgasbord of styles and moods; but there is also a coherence and a depth - each time you listen through it reveals something of its self.
Show of Hands are an essential part of the soul and quiet conscience of British folk music. Knightley has said, "With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we've dreamed of making for twenty-five years!". The sound may have changed, the personnel evolved, but the song remains uniquely the same - rooted, honest and life-affirming.