Picture-perfect – a singer and his hard-edged stories
June Tabor on the singing and the songs

Show of Hands’ Full Circle tour—looking back at 30 years on the road

Andrew Curry writes: The clock is running down on Show of Hands’ last tour. The 75 dates they started out on in the autumn has ticked down to just a handful, and the final show, give or take, is in Exeter Cathedral next Saturday.

Salut! Live was lucky enough to catch them at the Bush Hall in west London last weekend, when they had five to go. (We normally buy our own tickets, but the gig had been sold out for months, so our thanks go to the band’s management for getting us in.)

The woman in the next seat had seen them twice already on this ‘Full Circle’ tour, and thought they were getting better as the weight of the remaining gigs got lighter.

This part of the tour is just the pair of them, Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, without their long-standing collaborator Miranda Sykes.

IMG_5913(Steve Knightley and Phil Beer. Photo: Show of Hands)

The set is designed to walk through their career as a band over thirty years, in which time they have released 26 albums, not counting the compilations (I may have missed one or two), done around 4,500 shows, and driven close to a million miles to and from gigs.

In honour of all that mileage, quite early on they played a cover of Little Feat’s glorious trucker’s love song Willin’, with a few English place names woven in.

The show is a retrospective, and heaven knows they have earned it. But their telling of the story comes with a lot of self-deprecating humour. The audience was laughing a lot of the time.

Phil Beer got the folk bug at school, after joining the Folk and Blues Club. Sally Free and Easy was the first song he learned to play, from Davy Graham’s Folk, Blues and Beyond. He gave us a version here—somewhat improved since then, I suspect.

Steve Knightley taught himself all of the songs on The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, and he shared the first song he wrote, First Train in the Morning, heavily indebted to Bob, inviting us to guess the last word in each line. I think we got “mind”, “hurtin’”, and “train.”

Show of Hands started when Steve Knightley came home after a decade in London’s pub-rock circuit, and Phil Beer suggested they do a few gigs together.

Their breakthrough came with Country Life, a song about second homes and rural decay. ”It wasn’t a hit,” said Steve, “but it got us on Farming Today. Twice.”

Knightley thinks you should write from what you know, and a lot of these songs are direct from his experience. Country Life was written after he had renovated a house he had moved to in Dorset, and discovered that the man who’d done the skilled work for him had grown up in it—but wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy it now.

Similarly, Beat About The Bush is about a musician they knew in Dorset who got fed up with playing small venues, and told them he was going to London to make it big: “He said we could be his support act.” They met him by chance a bit later in a bar in a hotel in the English Midlands: he was selling insurance. The song has a chorus about the length of time it takes to find yourself as a musician:

'He said: 'How long you gonna give this?'/ One day you gotta stop’

But it's five years before your fingers/ Do what you want them to

Four more to get the right voice/ To free the singing tune

Two years of questions/ Is there one thing you really want to say?

Half a life of preparations/ Half a life to make it pay’.

Show of Hands—Knightley in particular—have always written political songs, and there were some here in the second half. The Crow and the Cradle, about bombs being dropped on children, has acquired a grim topicality. Santiago is from their time collaborating with a group of exiled Chilean musicians.

Phil Beer had been switching between guitar and violin, notably on The Blind Fiddler, but for Santiago he picked up a cuatro, a small version of a Latin American Spanish guitar.

Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed was written about the financial crisis—the insurance company AIG would have crashed in the crisis, but was bailed out by the American government.

As with Country Life, it wasn’t a hit, but it did get them on The Andrew Marr Show one Sunday morning, when they played the song live. The Conservative politician William Hague had been the guest, and “he had to at least look like he was enjoying it.” 

Of course, they played The Galway Farmer, and a Show of Hands gig wouldn’t be complete without Cousin Jack, and we got that as they moved to a close. They got a standing ovation but didn’t milk it, coming back to end with Don’t Be A Stranger.

If you missed this final tour, the good news is that they’re releasing a live record very shortly—it’s currently pre-ordering. The Exeter Cathedral concert is sold out, but it’s being filmed—with eight cameras—and the recording will be available online for the next year.

Early on in the show, Steve Knightley talked about an American idea of success being about how far you can get from where you started. He lives four miles from where he was born, Phil in the same place he was born in.

Listening to the songs in Bush Hall, you realise how many of them are about being grounded, taking the rough with the smooth, not giving up on people if you, or they, go through a bad patch, about respecting your work and your craft. You probably need all of that to survive on the road for 30 years.

More on Show of Hands from the Salut! Live archive:

Music from the West Country  (2021)

Show of Hands: Shipwrecks and human debris (2009)

Song of the Day: Cousin Jack (2011)

Show of Hands: Roots review  (2008)



Nice review. I was at the show to and it was emotional to saw farewell.

Crow on the Cradle was written by Sidney Carter btw, plus I’ve always thought your line in Beat Around the Bush was:

Four more to get the right voice / Three to sing in tune

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