SHow of Hands, Double bill DVDWith two very different and enjoyable features on one DVD, Show of Hands continue to give great value: a strong live set and the stories behind one of their best releases.

Time: Live at Shrewsbury Folk Festival: 52 minutes
Making the Waking: 58 minutes
Label: Hands On Music

Live at Shrewsbury Folk Festival: If there was any doubt that English folk can match American country in terms of songs about family strains and death, this one should nail it. In the first four live songs, we have Herod's massacre of the innocents; fatal disease portrayed as a sniper fulfilling his mission; at least one couple at breaking point; and a father-son near-death experience. It continues with exile, more separated couples and a press-ganged sailor.

But although Show of Hands deal with so many traumatic situations, somehow it is still a satisfying experience, thanks to their superb musicality and the way they deliver every tautly written song as if it's the most urgent thing they have to say. They deal in stories that keep your interest, one after another - and there is relief with their perennial love of the West Country shining through.

Always looking for a fresh take on their work, this time Phil Beer and Steve Knightley play backed by the strings of the deceptively-named Urban Soul Orchestra, adding a lush depth to these spacious songs. There is ample room for a slide solo or a fiddle break, and on the familiar encore "Santiago," a leisurely dobro intro from Phil Henry (joined later by partner Hannah Martin on violin).

Miranda Sykes has been playing alongside the duo for so long, that she is effectively a member of the band and her bass work and vocals add enormously to the songs here, not least alongside the string section on "IED: Science or Nature."

This set is unobtrusively well-shot from several angles, with rich colour and appropriate close-ups of the players' fingering, especially Phil Beer's. Little touches help, such as when Knightley sings, "That well-known face could be you, as the focus sharpens into view," the view shifts to the audience perspective and moves from a blur to a focused shot. This is not to imply that the direction is doggedly literalist, but a sign that the vision mixing is thoughtful and attentive to detail.

Making the Waking: The band's superb Wake the Union album is a delicately balanced look at how English and American folk share a common language, but have different emphases – a double bill of songs, if you like – so adding a documentary on its making to the Shrewsbury live to create this DVD double bill seems appropriate.

You would probably have to know Wake the Union to appreciate the documentary – although the film might well make you want to buy the album anyway – so it could not be a viable project on its own. However, this is no light, throwaway piece. Fuelled by a tankful of stories, its livery is straight-to-camera shots for telling those stories, live footage to augment them and documentary shots of the recording process, whether hand held or properly filmed including a sequence filmed on the Channel Island of Sark.

Like a handbook to the disc, this takes a track-by track journey through it, with plenty of background, including views of Devon for the local tale told on "Cruel River." It includes sessions and chats with such luminary folk musicians as Seth Lakeman, Andy Cutting and Martin Simpson.

Towards the end of the film, Steve Knightley describes one song as, "A moment of lightness in sometimes rather a lot of gloom and despondency." That lines sums up much of the band's content, but the glint-in-the-eye, self-deprecating humour he uses says a lot about why they have such a huge appeal.

This is a great value set, each short enough to be easy viewing and substantial enough to satisfy.


Derek Walker

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