Show of Hands

PaigntonThe Path
Tall ShipsBacklog 1987-1991
The NapoliArrogance, Ignorance and Greed
The OakBeat About The Bush
Country LifeCountry Life
No Woman, No CryCovers 2
The Blue CockadeAs You Were
Arrogance, Ignorance & GreedArrogance, Ignorance and Greed
The Galway Farmer (Live)Roots: The Best of Show of Hands


Show of Hands playlist



Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

I have long since decided that I am destined not to see Show of Hands perform live; every time I have made plans to do so, events have conspired against it. I do, however, have a stack of CDs that I play often and all have been downloaded to my MP3 player and travel with me. The spirit of their live performance is captured on CD and on videos to be found on YouTube.

I cannot add to the words written about Steve Knightley and Phil Beer both as individual musicians and as the duo Show of Hands. The duo became a trio in 2004 when Miranda Sykes added her vocals and double bass. I will instead focus on what Show of Hands mean to me and in particular, these ten songs.

Steve Knightley has one of the most expressive and, in places, evocative voices that I listen to on a regular basis. In addition to some quality songwriting, there is political commentary, interpretation of the tradition and an array of stunning covers. Knightley and Beer display a sense of humour that tells the listener they are prepared not to take themselves or the music totally seriously.To illustrate this point, here they are at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival (of which Knightley is a patron) in 2009 singing a folk song from Yorkshire with backing vocals added by The Spooky Men’s Chorale.

These ten are not meant to be representative in any way, these are my ten, and I hope they whet the appetite for those of you for whom Show of Hands is a new name. I expect some ‘what no’ responses and experience tells me TopperPosts are always the better for those.

Inevitably the West Country features heavily in Show of Hands material with both Knightley and Beer having strong connections to East Devon. This manifested itself in 2003 with The Path: An Instrumental Journey Around the West Country which begins and ends at Foreland Point. Our journey begins in Paignton where I spent a number of ‘dad and daughter’ holidays staying in a perfect little guest house and enjoying the world through a child’s eyes. Here we are on the beach in the shadow of Paignton Pier sitting in the sun, watching the sea and the world go by.

The West Country has a long tradition of the sea, storms, shipwrecks and smugglers. Tall Ships draws this together in a song that’s also called Tall Ships Medley and was from one of a series of self-released cassettes that were brought together in 1995 on a CD, Backlog 1987-1991. It is a series of traditional songs woven together by Knightley with a thread of his own lyrics and spoken inserts read by Jim Carter (known to many of us as Carson in Downton Abbey). The song is set just after the Napoleonic Wars; we are with the crew on the ship yearning for home and with the families on the shore who are hoping for a wreck and the opportunity to gather the goods cast ashore by the tide. This is a theme Knightley returned to in 2009 on the album Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed when telling the story of the wreck of The Napoli which made headline news in January 2007 when it ran aground and people were coming from far and wide to Branscombe Bay in Dorset to ‘assist clear the beach’.

Roots from Witness (2006) bemoans the loss of Englishness in our culture using the requests for American songs on the pub circuit as the metaphor. The Oak from what is now seen as Show of Hands first album Beat About The Bush (1994) uses the quintessentially English tree in a similar way.

It is said that when Country Life was released in 2003 the BBC refused to play the title track. Perhaps it was too close to an uncomfortable truth. The lyric paints a bleak picture: “Landed gentry county snobs where were you when they lost their jobs, no-one marched or subsidised to save a country way of life.” Knightley and Beer join Oysterband for a fine cover on the latter’s album, The Big Session.

As mentioned above, Show of Hands often produce excellent cover versions on album and in live performance. Some of these were brought together in two collections; Covers in 2000 and Covers 2 in 2010. No Woman, No Cry gives us a different take on a very familiar song.

The band has released a good number of live albums over the years to capture the atmosphere of their live performances. As You Were in 2005 is the first to feature Miranda Sykes. The Blue Cockade is a Roud ballad and has been recorded by others over the years as The White Cockade. It can be found on Beat About The Bush. Here we have a very heartfelt reading of a song I have known and loved for a good number of years. Miranda Sykes’ vocal gives it a new poignancy.

In the wake of the financial crisis that commenced in 2007, Show of Hands produced Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed in 2009 which quickly became known as AIG after the failed American Insurance Group. The lyric is very politically charged. In February 2011, Show of Hands played out The Andrew Marr Show with a slightly rewritten version of the song and with Foreign Secretary William Hague looking on.

One song has been with the band since their very early days and has appeared on a number of collections. The Galway Farmer that first appeared on Beat About The Bush is Knightley telling the story of a farmer crossing the sea from Ireland to the Cheltenham Festival in the hope of backing a winning horse in the Gold Cup. Roots: The Best of Show of Hands is a compilation put together in 2007 that is as good an introduction to the band as any. It has a live version of the song that captures all the excitement of the horse race and is a fitting way to end the ten.


And finally, here’s a Show of Hands topper-ten of covers to ponder:

Willin’ (Lowell George) Covers
The Setting (Ralph McTell) Covers
Is Your Love In Vain (Bob Dylan) Covers
First They Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen) Backlog 1987-1991
2-4-6-8 Motorway (Tom Robinson) Covers 2
Tunnel Of Love (Mark Knopfler) Covers 2
Secret World (Peter Gabriel) Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed
Sally Free And Easy (Cyril Tawney) Cold Frontier
If I Needed Someone (George Harrison) Witness
The Leaving Blues (Lead Belly) Backlog 1987-1991


Show of Hands official website

Show of Hands biography (Apple Music)

Steve Knightley, Phil Beer, Miranda Sykes have all had recording careers outside of Show of Hands so we’d be thrilled if anyone wants to have a go…

TopperPost #282


  1. Andrew Shields
    May 21, 2014

    Ian, thanks for the great list and for personal reasons really enjoyed ‘The Galway Farmer’. Its theme reminded me a bit of Richard Thompson’s great ‘Elvis’ song, ‘From Galway to Graceland’. Of course, Cheltenham is the Irish Mecca…

  2. David Lewis
    May 24, 2014

    Spooky men’s chorale is Australian. Just so you know.

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