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Show of Hands - Dark Fields
SHOW OF HANDS "Dark Fields" Hands on Music HMCD03

Once upon a time, a parochial folk-buff in the grimy West Riding decided that the English folk revival had hit the buffers. Then along came Living Tradition 24. With mounting excitement he read the interview with the artistes on the cover.

He violently agreed with their endorsement of home-taping. He applauded the attention they paid to their heritage and chosen profession. He cheered their efforts to empower the people who pay their wages. But in the midst of his euphoria, he was visited by a Doubt. What if the music produced by this dark, articulate hairy and even hairier blonde (matching guitar) didn't live up to the intelligent, sensible humanity revealed in the article? He made a mental note to check it out, then mislaid the brain-cell he wrote it on. Luckily fate intervened, once again via The Living Tradition and Royal Mail, who colluded to drop Show of Hands "Dark Fields" through his letter-box. Before he even wound up his gramophone, he found himself captivated by the cunning, plastic-free packaging, enraptured by the inclusion of not only total song-words but also working guitar chords, and delighted by the register of outside contributors - "Cutting (A), Rusby (K), While (C) and Wood (C) to name but four. So he put the CD into his machine (remembering to tape a copy to play in his ratless pumpkin), and wrote the following review ...

"Dark Skies" is the latest addition to what is becoming a substantial body of recorded work from Phil Beer, tried-and-tested multi-instrumentalist, and Steve Knightley - one of the small minority of people who deserve the job-description of "singer" and "songwriter" in equal measure. Steve is credited with just over half of the twelve tracks, the bulk of the remainder being "trad. arr", though Nic Jones' arrangement of "Warlike Lads of Russia" is rightly honoured - just the kind of blatant altruism which Zimmerman of Hibbing notably omitted to display a few years back. It would've been deliciously ironic if "Farewell Angelina", the only other song on the album not attributed to Show of Hands, had been misappropriated, but no - (Bob Dylan) (Sony Music) appears alongside the title. Either English folkies are a forgiving bunch or our short-term memory gets ever shorter.

The majority of the subjects peopling "Dark Fields" exude Englishness. On one hand there are the misfits - hedonistic teenager, dyed-in-the-wool poacher. Another hand highlights slave traders or recruiting sergeants - murky historical characters trapped by their time. On the third hand, the West Country's exiled miners and heroic emergency servants are given the benefit of Knightley's sympathetic pen. And on the final hand, leavening the proceedings, there are a brace of unrequited love-stories and a terrifyingly competent tune set.

To play Devil's advocate, the only drawback I can see is that it might be too mid-Atlantic for the traddy fundamentalists, while being a bit too acoustic for the mainstream. The faithful reproduction of the wonderful tones and textures of the stringed instruments is breath-taking - recording engineer, instrument builder and musicians all deserve decoration - but whether the mass-market is ready for such relentlessly acoustic fare remains to be seen. With demonic advocacy all used up, I have to say that it would be just great if Show of Hands could achieve the breakthrough they obviously desire and richly deserve. Apart from all else, it could give a glimpse of the riches that abound in The English Tradition to both their fellow countryfolk and neighbours near and far. Well, I can dream, can't I?

Suitably relieved, the folk-buff sent the review to The Living Tradition, who, in its benign wisdom, printed every word without a single typographical terror. And they all lived happily ever after.

Alan Rose

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This album was reviewed in Issue 26 of The Living Tradition magazine.