The Living Tradition
by Tom Robinson - Issue 24 November/December '97
Show of Hands are highly unusual in their breadth of lateral thinking about the business. You might imagine some techno outfit that's making dance records for twopence in a bedroom would have a radical approach - but it's the last thing you'd expect from an acoustic duo playing a traditional-based music.
Steve: A lot of our approach stems from the fact that I didn't become a professional musician 'til quite recently. I'd played the folk scene and London rock circuit but in terms of actually earning my exclusive living from music it wasn't till 1994 that I finally gave up part-time teaching. So with Show of Hands we could draw upon Phil's twenty-year involvement in the business and my observation of it.
So how did Show of Hands begin?
Show of Hands really started in 1991 when Phil left the Albions and we started looking for more work. We met an excellent agent in Bridport called Peter Wilson and started playing pubs and bars all along the South coast - and that was probably the single most important factor in the 'Show of Hands' development. For example, in Gosport the chairman of the council (a visionary called Peter Chegwyn) created this policy of bringing acoustic musicians to local pubs and subsidising the fee. So you'd turn up at a pub in this scheme, full of blokes playing darts and pool and listening to the Juke box! - It soon became apparent that we couldn't do the usual singer/songwriter "My Life Is In Ruins" material. So as well as getting a set together that relied on stuff like "Summertime Blues" and "Killgary Mountains" we also started chucking in my songs.
I started formatting what I wrote just to go down well in pubs - writing in rhythms and chords people perceived as being Standards. After three or four visits the crowd still wanted to hear standards, but they'd also say "Do Cars!", "Do Tall Ships!" or whatever. So we got more and more confident about our own material. It was just a question of earning money and surviving. Our performing attitude was: go right up on the mike, play loud and play hard. So when, after two years of pub work, we took that attitude onto festival stages such as Cambridge - it worked. You could see a lot of people ...
Sitting up and taking notice?
The ability to deconstruct Standards,
work out what it is about them that connects - and then write good substitutes,
really sets Show Of Hands apart.
So in '94 we tried to put it all together: Album. Tour. We met Gerard O' Farrell and he has been with us ever since. He also manages our affairs and is responsible for our sound. Then we made 'Lie Of the Land' in 1995 and tried to capture our live sound by recording all the instruments D.I.'d ...
i.e. plugged in, the way people hear the
sound on stage? ...
And you didn't even have finger-in-the-ear
I remember going on anti-apartheid demos
in the eighties were you'd have a whole bunch of African exiles, ordinary
citizens, down the front singing national songs of incredible polyrhythmic
There was stuff I remember from the family
gathered round the piano - and at school - in the fifties: 'The Vicar
of Bray', 'No John, No' ... stuff we don't hear anymore.
But that's to do with Performance as opposed to Musicianship. A musician like Alan Holdsworth can still play a blinding gig even if no-one's there to applaud because he plays music for music's sake. Whereas at the opposite extreme there'd be no point in, say, John Otway setting up and playing in an empty hall. As a performer his gigs depend totally on audience interaction.
Steve: True ... In May we did a tour with some fantastic English musicians: Andy Cutting and Chris Wood who have an uncompromising approach: they play their music and that's it. If an audience happens to like it, that's fine. Chris and Andy regarded our crowd pleasers - songs like 'See My Baby Again' - as the crassest thing we did. But I had thought up till then "this tour, this van, this PA, this whole structure exists because of our crowd pleasing approach - playing what people want to hear at certain times of the evening." So this Performer versus Musician thing is quite close to home. We've since decided not to do that song any more (laughs) ...
You stopped doing it? Have audiences declined
as a result?
So in a sense they were right.
Is your ideology conscious - could you
But not to your own greater glory - you're
just the channel through which the story is told ...
You're much more analytical about what
you do than I'd expected. Have you ever thought about what Show of Hands
are selling, to whom, and what needs you're satisfying?
"Just connect" - that's right on the money,
Which doesn't have to have any basis in
the geographical reality - you create a community of the mind
Also we went to see The Prodigy. They had all the trimmings - the electric atmosphere, the flickering lights, the real edge in the crowd - very atmospheric, very tense, very urban. Their opening number was "Smack My Bitch Up" - the most evil title of a song you can imagine - played really, really loud with all the white lights full on into the audience . Then after about three numbers all their onstage MIDI stuff goes down. They're on huge video screens shrugging their shoulders and confused. Suddenly they're reduced from being Gothic cartoon figures into a shambles. It's a magnificent spectacle but it's all so reliant on the technology: they can't connect in any other way. Radiohead the next night was a different thing entirely: people felt that they really knew the singer. I didn't know the material or the band but was completely entranced - it was so uncompromising and so emotional. Just a wonderful experience. It restored your faith in the power of rock bands on large stages to make that human connection.
Earlier you mentioned the Albert Hall
show ... how did that come about (Show Of Hands successfully headlined
the Royal Albert Hall in March 1996 - with fans swarming in by coach from
all over the country to make it their most successful show ever ...)
So we went away and thought about it. There was only one serious player we knew on the folk scene with the expertise to make it happen - Steve Heap, who runs Mrs. Casey Music in Aylesbury. Steve said 'Yeah it could work but we need to share the risk.' So we then approached a Show Of Hands fan called Richard Patterson - he's in computer software, very successful - who said straight away 'Yeah, I'll back it.'
We didn't see it as a money making venture, more a way of raising our profile. And it really worked. Quite a lot of people now know Show Of Hands as 'Those guys who did the Albert Hall'. So it's opened a lot of doors. In India there was a tremendous cachet - we were checked out by people who came to see us just because of having played the Royal Albert Hall. In America as well. It also gave us a live album that cost £200 on the night to record and has been a great calling card to send festival promoters. So it exceeded all our expectations in that sense. What it didn't do was to get anybody talking about the music. The press were only interested if the story was that Phil and I were risking our last penny. They didn't want to hear that we had backers.
And did you break even?
Has it increased audience numbers?
I think the fact that you play benefits for Port Isaac Lifeboat Station tells people all they need to know about Show Of Hands.
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