The notoriously bad acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall may have been noticeable for the quieter songs of the first half of Show of Hands’ 25th Anniversary show, but the ominous opening provided by Steve Knightley’s version of “Widecombe Fair” rang poignant throughout the audience enough for it not to matter too much. The sudden appearance of Phil Beer spotlighted high on the balcony in front of the great organ at the back of the stage for the violin solo helped capture the audience’s attention so poignantly that it lasted without deviation throughout the whole concert, despite the performers only using the main stage for the rest of the show. The appearance of a choir (The Lost Sound Chorus) for “The Old Lych Way”, enabled Beer to make his way down to the stage from his position high above in enough time to start the song, though from my position in the audience I could not see him at all for most of the performance due to an inconveniently placed staircase railing.
The first half of the night was dedicated almost exclusively to the “Centenary” project, as well as 2016’s “The Long Way Home”. Despite the audience being continually encouraged to sing along, it was certainly the calmer of the two halves and this did nothing to help the annoying reverberations that are inevitable from playing more delicate music in the Royal Albert Hall. There were some exceptions to this though, particularly in the revitalised version of one of Show of Hands’ signature anthems, “Roots”, at which I was surprised to be hearing the faster version rather than the slower one that the band were playing throughout the last few years.
The inclusion of an accordion was nice, particularly in the Miranda Sykes-led “The Lily and the Rose” (even if her microphone seemed to come on just a second too late causing us to miss the first couple of words), though it would have been nice to have the accordion player introduced! The first half was highlighted by my surprise at seeing Show of Hands joined by Jim Carter (of “Downton Abbey” fame), and all earlier gripes about the acoustics fade away as his unique voice fills the hall for a bout of “Centenary” poetry. An enjoyable Morris Dance at the front of the stage (Alice Jones) rounded up the first half nicely – even if it looked slightly odd to only have one dancer rather than a small group!
“Innocent’s Song” seemed an odd choice for an opening song to the second half at first, but it worked surprisingly well – especially with Phillip Henry, Hannah Martin, and Rex Preston taking the stage halfway through to join Show of Hands throughout most of the remainder of the show. The second half is dedicated to the “Wake the Union” band, which admittedly seems a strange thing to do for a “25th Anniversary” concert instead of a full overview of career highlights. Some great live rarities came through in this half though, including “Katrina”, a cover of Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill”, and “The Dive” – which I haven’t seen Show of Hands play live since my childhood days at the Abbotsbury festival.
“Guess what?” Steve Knightley asks the crowd, “Country Life!” Was the answer, and this news is met with cheers from all around the hall. The addition of the harmonica (Phillip Henry) really adds to the song we all know well, but I wish that Rex Preston’s mandolin was louder – I could barely hear it at all. They were then joined by Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak, all the way from North America, to go full Americana with a set of tunes and even a spectacularly entertaining hambone solo that would put some of the world’s most technical percussionists to shame. “Aunt Maria” also finally sounded how it’s supposed to sound, with the full band and a huge variety of instruments backing them up. The collaboration with various musicians means the audience doesn’t quite know what they will get, which I actually found myself preferring to the first half despite not knowing several of the choices. It would have been nice to give Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, or Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, a chance to perform one or two of their own songs though.
One apparent favourite that I did not anticipate was a Phil Beer-led version of “Exile”, from right back on Show of Hands’ very first recording, made all the more relevant today with the ugly presence of Brexit and Donald Trump never far from our minds – a fact that was not lost in Dr Beer’s introductory speech. Finally, the encore of “Galway Farmer” finished the show well, with all of the other performers running back onstage for an extended violin solo that had even Dr Knightley dancing at the front of the stage. The always-magical “Santiago” made for an even more wonderful than usual finish with Lost Sound Chorus taking their places again at the back of the stage for a sing that quite literally raised the roof. The onstage interaction, humour, and friendship between Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, culminating in an emotional hug after the rest of the performers had left the stage, remains strong even after 25 years. With this in mind, it is easy to see how Show of Hands have proved themselves one of the most durable, versatile, and relevant bands on the circuit today.