2016 marks a quarter-century of Show Of Hands: with the last ten of those years featuring Miranda Sykes’ double-bass fleshing out Steve Knightley and Phil Beer’s sound. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, to find in The Long Way Home an album of reflection, tracing its fingers over the map of years, pausing on significant places or memories. It’s also a map of “the heart of England”: ancient and modern, land and sea, geography and tradition.
An insistent burst of Saxon, spoken by historian Michael Wood, delivers a punchy kick-start to the tale of Suffolk freeman, Breme. The Norman conquest of 1066 cost his life and decisively altered what it meant to be English, but this is not an album of polemic. Indeed, Steve Knightley’s more acerbic social commentary is laid aside in favour of a wry self-awareness in Walk With Me (When The Sun Goes Down) as he invites listeners to judge the countryside for themselves. Still, something in Knightley’s phrasing can make the hook line sound equally welcoming and menacing, leaving a tantalising ambiguity about just what might be lurking in the shadows.
Other Knightley compositions here include the swishy, swinging go-anywhere blues of Sweet Bella and title track, The Long Way Home, savouring the sweetness of lost love rekindled. On Hambledon Fair, autobiographical elements are melded with three traditional lyric sets to create a timeless picture of the restlessness of youth. Finally, there’s the sorrowful closer Mesopotamia, a timely reminder of the heartache and uncertainty of war. As Show Of Hands look back over their past, they also seem to have a wary eye on the future.
This is a band with a definite sense of place, so their choice of Topsham local songwriter Chris Hoban’s two pieces here are apt - and what absolutely gorgeous songs they are. The Old Lych Way, commemorating a harsh funeral procession route, has delicious harmonies that manage to suggest both the pastoral and the ecclesiastical. Hallows’ Eve is a reminder of the real tradition of Hallowe’en and features the vocal accompaniment of the amusingly-named Bridge Inn Shandymen. They also provide rousing support on Keep Hauling, Broom Bezzums’ modern shanty here exploded into a huge chorus song: an absolute classic in the making.
It’s a delight to hear the incredible multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer taking primary vocal duties on two traditional songs, ’Twas On One April’s Morning and Virginia, an intriguing tale of convict deportation. Both Phil and Steve are such masterful interpreters and conveyers of songs, as well as being fine, skillful musicians. They are absolutely masters of their art, with arrangements that always seem exactly suited to the material.
A battery of talented guest musicians, including the young Jack Knightley, lend their embellishment to the very identifiable Show Of Hands sound. This album is a reminder, if one were needed, that they really are unsurpassed in what they do, so “Hold your course and don’t let go: keep hauling boys”.Su O’Brien
Released on 15th January 2016 by Hands On Music.
1. Breme Fell At Hastings
2. Hallows’ Eve
3. Hambledon Fair
4. The Long Way Home
5. Keep Hauling
6. ’Twas On One April’s Morning
7. Sweet Bella
8. The Old Lych Way
9. Walk With Me (When The Sun Goes Down)
11. John Harrison’s Hands