Show of Hands Wake the Union. The band celebrates 20 years of quality roots with a semi-Americana release. It works.

Wake the Union
Artist: Show of Hands
Label: Hands On Music
Time: 15 Tracks / 57 minutes  

Driven by fluency on a host of stringed instruments and Steve Knightley’s straight-from-the-gut songwriting, Show of Hands have collected many plaudits and awards over the last twenty years, nurturing a reputation as one of the UK’s premier roots acts. Two years ago, they justifiably won best duo and best song in the Radio 2 Folk Awards. No one betters Knightley at writing folk songs about today’s issues that connect like a news feature, but sound like timeless classics.  

For their celebration of twenty years they alternate their typically English songs with Americana tracks. Knightley describes it as "a journey through the heart of two landscapes united by a common tongue and musical heritage.”

The English stream flows from fluid melody to fluid melody as songs about death, betrayal and family strife follow other songs about death, betrayal and family strife (it does make you wonder if  Knightley’s suffering at home...). His level of engagement with his subjects is as phenomenal as his lyrics are photographic in the detail they portray. He sounds personally involved with everything he writes and the commissioned track “Home to a Million Thoughts,” about a museum, is gloriously nostalgic and affectionate.

Thoughtful touches impress, such as the way the traditional song “Bonny Light Horseman” is grafted so well onto the end of the Afghanistan song, “Coming Home.” The supporting harmonies are excellently executed, too: warm enough to swell the heart, but never over-complicated or distracting.

The Americana kicks off with “Company Town,” ( a 1930s-based follow up to “Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed,” their popular attack on bankers. This stream – though still populated by death, tragedy and injustice – feels warmer, thanks to ample helpings of banjo, dobro, harmonica, melodeon, slide guitar and omnichord. These extra instruments (many of which feature on the excellent “Aunt Maria”) give the songs more individual personalities. Chris Hoban’s hurricane lament “Katrina,” for example,  is a sparse affair, whose ominous slow introduction is like something from a shoot out scene in a western.      

High-profile guests abound: Seth Lakeman co-wrote the typically dark opening “Haunt You,” plays bouzouki and sings, adding viola elsewhere; BJ Cole adds pedal steel to “Who Gets to Feel Good?”; Martin Simpson’s slide guitar decorates “Aunt Maria;” the Duhks’ banjo player Leonard Podolak graces “Katrina,” while Andy Cutting… well, he plays on everyone’s albums anyway.

It might be these extra players that distract from Phil Beer’s contribution, but when his fiddle does feature, it takes off and the song shifts a gear. His multi-instrumentalism is an intrinsic part of the band's appeal.

There is genuinely not a bad track on here and the quality only starts to dip after the first dozen songs (small niggles: the lighter “Stop Copying Me,” with its echoed refrain, is more at home live than on record; “King of the World”’s line “playground free from faith… the age of man is here at last” is surprisingly shallow from such a perceptive writer and the closing “Thanks” is almost a musical credits).

It says much for the Bard of Exeter’s writing that many of these songs are more engaging than the poetic Dylan song “Seven Curses.” His strength is notably in the story songs.

I can only presume that Show of hands will need to hone several acceptance speeches, ready for the next Radio 2 Folk Awards. It is surely not a matter of whether they win the gong for best song, but which of these will take the prize.


Derek Walker

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