Almost precisely seven years have passed since Show of Hands last appeared before an audience at Wells Cathedral; an interval of time that many would sadly conclude has seen the world become an ever-more uncertain and unpredictable place. In these days when the news amounts to a cavalcade of increasingly unsettling events it’s reassuring that some cherished institutions remain steadfast and dependable, enshrining values that continue to inspire. As part of the fittingly titled ‘Sanctuary’ tour it was a joy to see two much revered institutions reunite – musical act and sacred building – each casting the other in new and unexpected light.
The first member of Show of Hands to appear before tonight’s audience – a congregation comprising the band’s staunchly loyal audience and the cathedral’s parishioners – was Phil Beer. Illuminated at the altar, Beer introduced the evenings supporting artist, Kirsty Merryn. His warm words of praise were swiftly borne out by a distinctive set, most notable for Merryn’s liquid clear voice cascading over the deft piano runs of her original compositions. Many of the songs, drawn from Merryn’s debut album, ‘She and I‘ offered a fresh perspective on the achievements of esteemed female figures from the past, including Jane Austen and Grace Darling. As ever, Show of Hands had picked an artist to accompany them on this tour of cathedrals who genuinely was a ‘special guest’ rather than a mere supporting artist.
When, after the interval, Show of Hands appeared it was, as is often the case, without any grand gesture or musical fanfare. Instead the performance began with the solitary figure of Steve Knightley walking down the cathedral’s central aisle as he softly intoned the words of ‘The Old Lych Way’, a composition by fellow Topsham songwriter and musician, Chris Hoban. The song focuses on a longer and yet more ancient route that traverses a remote stretch of Dartmoor along which the faithful would bear the deceased to a final resting place at Lydford Church. A suitably contemplative and mystic atmosphere was conjured beneath the Cathedral’s hallowed arches, setting the tone for much of what was to follow. Next came ‘The Preacher’ from 1995 album ‘The Lie of the Land’, a song in which the prayers of a lonesome island-dwelling cleric lead to guilt and self-recrimination.
While some of Show of Hands best loved numbers were absent from this evening’s performance – there was to be no salutation to the fabled ‘Cousin Jack’ or impassioned plea for a return to ‘Roots’ – this was entirely fitting. The set list had clearly been compiled to highlight the spiritual questing evident in so much of Show of Hands’ material. Phil Beer, a more vocal presence during this evening’s show than is often the case, offered an exquisite rendition of Sydney Carter’s masterpiece ‘The Crow on the Cradle’, a song that focuses on the power of mankind to avoid the tragedy of war.
Throughout the evening Show of Hands’ stunning music was complemented by equally impressive lighting effects. The St. Andrew’s Cross, a gargantuan arched structure that occupies the east end of the nave, was often spectacularly lit while the finely carved stone work that lies immediately behind it was frequently illuminated to produce a startling contrast. As Steve Knightley himself pointed out, the band’s music became in this context just one component of the audience’s experience. Perhaps the lighting was at its most dramatic and meaningful during a rendition of ‘Innocent’s Song’, the words of Cornish poet, Charles Causley set to music. As the song was performed the massive stone backdrop was bathed in a deep red – powerfully representing the blood of the innocents murdered by the biblical King Herod. Another highlight was Phil Beer’s tune ‘Gwithian’, the music’s insistent fiddle-driven rhythm increasingly intensified by the hand claps of an enraptured audience and seeming to evoke the lash of waves against Cornish rocks.
At intervals throughout the evening Show of Hands were joined by the Dartmoor Folk Choir whose contributions highlighted the anthemic quality of many of the songs while providing an apt accompaniment for performance in a cathedral. Also occasionally present to further embellish the music with accordion was Chris Hoban, who Knightley commended as a songwriter who “sometimes writes better songs than me”. When at an earlier point in the evening Show of Hands double-bassist Miranda Sykes sang a captivating version of Hoban’s song ‘The Lilly and the Rose’ it was difficult not to agree.
The great care evident in the content and presentation of this evening’s show, from the songs chosen to guest musicians and lighting design, served to elevate Show of Hands’ performance far beyond the ordinary expectations of “three folk singers in a pub near Wells” while reconfirming the outstanding quality and breadth of so much of their material. An inspiring evening indeed.
Tim Carter presents ‘Off the Beaten Track’ on Somer Valley FM (www.somervalleyfm.co.uk) every Monday evening at 6pm.