Thursday, November 04, 2010

Three Folk Singers in a Church Near Wells

Show of Hands
Wells Cathedral
Oct 23

Regular readers may recall that I can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands. Having now seen them do a remarkable, sell out show in a very special setting I can report that I, er, still can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands.

The setting was, of course, very special indeed: Wells Cathedral; tactfully lit, coloured spotlights illuminating the stonework. I did a little reading about medieval architecture during my MA, so was instantly able to identify the style as "twiddly on the outside, but rather plain on the inside". I award several points to the clergyman who introduced the show for managing to say "This is a church, you know," without actually saying "This is a church, you know".

Rather wonderfully, Show of Hands begin their set in darkness, with Steve Knightley  entering from the back of the Cathedral, singing "The preacher of the island" as he walked down the aisle, and then disappearing while Phil Beer did a fiddle piece by himself.

(I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of Shows of Hands' discography, and this was one of a number of songs that I was hearing for the first time. Obviously, when he was "unplugged", you couldn't hear the words perfectly. I therefore very nearly committed a full fledged Mondegreen. I was just about to type that the song was very probably about Caliban.) 

Phil and Steve said that they liked to do shows that are appropriate to the spaces they are performing in. For this "Spires and Beams" tour -- five cathedrals and numerous old churches -- this meant an acoustic, down tempo set, concentrating on reflective pieces. I'm not sure that they didn't take this a little bit too far -- would God really have minded if there'd been just a couple of jigs and reels?

Some of it I like a lot. I thought the recorded version of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" was a slightly obvious response to the global credit thingy but I liked tonight's slowed down version much better -- if only because, in the new form, you could follow every dripping, angry word. I was much less convinced by the slowed down "Country Life" (also sung by Steve walking up and down the aisles) -- but it was nice that the audience knew the song so well that they started hummng the chorus without any prompting. 

I'd never heard the uncharacteristically vicious Sydney Carter song "The Crow on the Cradle" before, nor the weirdo Charles Causley poem which conflates Santa Claus with Herod (this latter leading into a wonderfully extended fiddle riff). To my slight surprise, the highlight was "The Dive", Steve's very personal song about a father and son -- they are separated on a diving expedition, but some paternal link enables the dad to find the boy before he drowns. The only other time I've heard them do this one live, at the atmosphere-free Fiddlers club in Bristol, they filled the stage up with blue smoke and did all sorts of pop starrish lighting tricks, and came across as corny. This time they just sang it, and it worked. It may not be a folk song, really, but its a remarkable bit of song writing. Was there ever a reel/A rod or a line/So strong and true/So straight or fine?/The tide unwound him/Through time and space/He came out the darkness/Right to that place.

And, of course, inevitably, almost a cliche before it happened ,"All the Way To Santiago", the moving, powerful, all-join-in song about human rights which has suddenly becomes a guaranteed, no-question about it show-finisher. It references Chile, it references miner -- it even mentions people coming up from the dark and seeing the sun again -- and it would have a great, great chorus even if wasn't suddenly topical. But they came down onto the floor again for the encore, leading the audience in one last chorus of "The Larks they Sang Melodious" as if to to prove that whatever else they may be, Show of Hands are first and foremost folk singers.

So, why do I remain ambivalent? I think maybe it was a mistake to do a single long set, and maybe the Cathedral wouldn't have collapsed if they'd done a "Roots" or a "Cousin Jack" or a "Keys of Canterbury" or something with a bit more oomph. For the first 40 minutes, I thought that this was maybe the best gig I'd ever been to, with every song dragging me though an emotional crisis; and dropping me out on the other side of it, but in the second half (about the time of the song in which Steve narrowly avoids a car crash and starts to wonder all sorts of deep things about fate and life) my stamina started to give out. I started to feel that all the songs were a bit similar, and that maybe Steve's technique of whispering lines over the closing bars could be given a rest.

I am going to hear them again next month in the less sacred setting of Bristol's Soviet-style era Colston Hall, so maybe I will be able to make my mind up then. 

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