Show of Hands – Wake the Union

Had they begun in the mid-1970s, a time when the public seemed rather taken with weathered-yet-fiery acoustic music, Show of Hands would surely have been as massive as Steeleye Span.

Instead, the duo of Steve Knightley and Phil Beer came along in the early 1990s, when mainstream tastes didn’t much care for such rootsy sounds. Thus, their audience has always been relatively compact. Yet there’s no denying that their fans are fiercely committed. They’ve sold out the Royal Albert Hall. Four times.

It would be very easy for Show of Hands to simply coast on this loyalty. Instead, they have deliberately evolved to challenge their audience. In 2004 they augmented the group with double-bass player Miranda Sykes, and with 2009’s album, Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed, they stripped back the Show of Hands sound, evoking a politicised post-folk, pre-punk grittiness.

Wake the Union has its fair share of overtly political moments. The cleverest one, and the album’s overall highlight, is Aunt Maria, featuring slide guitar from Martin Simpson.

It’s about the titular Aunt meeting song collector Cecil Sharp. Maria allows her song to be recorded and her history told, but is uneasy about the difference in class between herself and Sharp, and anxious that she shouldn’t be the only one to whom the collector talks. “There’s lots more folk like me, sir,” Knightly sings as Maria. “Why don’t you come and see, sir?”

There’s another notable guest star: Seth Lakeman. He pops up on a few songs, including a co-write on the album’s paean to stalkers, Haunt You, and he also totes his viola on the (rather pointless) cover of Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses.

More successful is Sykes’ vocal contribution to Coming Home. She interjects two verses from the traditional song, Bonny Light Horseman, subtly complicating this otherwise simple tale of a family’s bad seed.

There are certainly a few filler tracks, but overall this is a solid, sometimes great, set. It’s unlikely to win over many new fans, but those already under the band’s wingspan are, once again, richly rewarded with another thought-provoking collection.

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