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SHOW OF HANDS "Country Life" Hands on Music HMCD19

The enigma that is Show of Hands is back with this stunner of a studio album that makes you question once again why they're dabbling in the backwaters when they could knock spots of many mainstream music icons. Perhaps it's because Devon's independent acoustic music duo are simply indefinable. Short-listed for numerous folk awards they may have been but the many and varied influences of their careers permeate through, making some of what they deliver nothing like the folk I've ever heard.

Steve Knightley's 'windswept' voice and astonishing and prolific song writing skills are matched only by Phil Beer's awesome multi-instrumental prowess - fiddle, slide guitar, Spanish guitar, cuatro, mandocello, melodeon, percussion - in fact give that man any instrument and he'll play you a tune. Add to that Phil's distinctive and contrasting voice and Knightley's own mastery of cuatro, concertina, mandocello and bass and you're simply tripping over talent.

To see them live is an unforgettable and uplifting experience, whether the 'hall' they are playing is of the village or Royal Albert variety. But the next best thing is to buy this album, which doesn't have a lacklustre song on it. Their most ambitious, exciting and keenly awaited project to date, it boasts ten new titles from the mighty Knightley repertoire plus his arrangements of two traditional folk songs and Kelly Joe Phelps's harrowing 'Tommy' - the tale of a misfit.

This is music on an inspired and intelligent level. The title track is a stirring, defiant and finely honed rant about the desecration of British country life and contains some of Knightley's finest lyrics - the 'agri barons CAP in hand' line is a gem. An accompanying promo CD shows this track recorded in a Devon barn with a full band line-up including one time Rolling Stones keyboard player Matt Clifford. Only a diehard townie could fail to be moved with the imagery this acoustic rock number creates of cattle burning in the foot and mouth pyres and village cottages turned into empty shells of holiday homes. 'No trains, no jobs, no shops, no pubs - what went wrong with country life?' bawls Knightley as Phil Beer turns up the tempo with some dazzling fiddle playing.

From this 'in your face' number (and Show of Hands are never afraid to be political) they set off to strut their showcase of music as the mood changes instantly to the sweet song about long standing friendship 'Hard Shoulder' followed by the sublime Spanish guitar playing of Beer in the wonderful 'Suntrap' and the poignant and gentle 'Smile She Said' which tells of the journey of a relationship in five ' exposures.' The traditional lyrics of Reynardine (Fairport did a memorable version of this song akin to the werewolf legend) are set to the haunting music of Knightley. He is a past master of the shiver-down-the-spine song (as heard in Widecombe Fair) and this is no exception as he starts his hallmark finger drumming, this time on the cuatro (an instrument he was taught by exiled Chilean musician Vladamir Vega).

The fine voice of young West Country singer Jenna Witts complements Steve's in the easy on the ear ballad 'Seven Days' before the mood changes once again to the raw song of Tommy featuring Beer's unusual voice. The first half of the album is the strongest I feel but that's not to detract from more jaunty tracks like 'Be Lucky', the traditional folk song 'Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy' (another vehicle for Beer), the gentle 'I Promise You' and the reflective concert closer 'Don't Be a Stranger'. And then there's the upbeat 'Red Diesel' - many people must know a man like the Yuppie-hating, wine-making, car-mending Terry of this song and it contains another brilliant Knightley lyric 'He says he sang a folk song once but he didn't inhale!'

I have racked my brains for a way to describe this band and failed. And therein lies the 'riddle' of Show of Hands. Just when you think you've got a handle on them and decided it's 'acoustic with attitude' or out and out English folk they'll throw in some rock, shades of country, a reel of Celtic, a bit of bluegrass and then recreate the sitar sounds of India in the blink of an eye. They are without a doubt the coolest chameleons I've seen. and the release of "Country Life" proves they just get better and better.

Jane Brace

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This album was reviewed in Issue 54 of The Living Tradition magazine.