Folky heroes take transatlantic stride across two genres
Vibes and spirit leap to and fro across the Atlantic carrying the 15 tracks of a brand new studio album that's about to be showcased by Devon heroes Show of Hands on their autumn UK theatre tour.
The songs of Wake the Union offer a rootsy and uplifting alliance of compositions that are in turn solidly English, inspired by traditional and folk storytelling, or country-fuelled Americana, both toe-tapping and lamenting.
In the 20th year of his formidable partnership with multi-instrumentalist partner Phil Beer, lead singer and songwriter Steve Knightley feels it's the band's best, most honestly representative record to date.
It's hard to disagree; the LP and its opening single Company Town, which carries on the theme of the award-winning Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed, is already causing a buzz among roots music cognoscenti.
Steve describes the album as "a journey through the heart of two landscapes united by a common tongue and musical heritage.
It's striking cover image by photographer Rob O'Connor shows the beaten-up body of an acoustic guitar embellished by colourful images from UK and US – Union Flag vs Stars and Stripes; dollar vs pound; A303 Honiton and Exeter turn-off sign vs Route 66 badge.
"I think it's the first time we have realised a concept all the way through."
For Steve and Phil the US element is a long-overdue trip down memory lane, drawing on their early days of collaboration in the Anglo-American outfit Arizona Smoke Review, as well as key early influences such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
"We were very familiar with banjo-driven slide guitar hoedown music, although that particular style didn't feature much in Show of Hands' songs before," says Steve. He and Phil have been drifting in the direction of exploring English and American sounds for around three years, guided by happy encounters with a string of fellow musicians from both sides of the pond.
One of these is Canadian five-string claw hammer banjo player Leonard Podolak, one of the songwriters involved alongside Steve in the recent Cecil Sharp Project, which spawned the album track Aunt Maria. Another is American singer songwriter Richard Shindell who toured Britain as Show of Hands' guest; his song Reunion Hill is covered on Wake The Union.
Devon duo Phil Henry and Hannah Martin (see page 22) who Show of Hands have taken under their wing, have a distinct American influence in their work. And Rex Preston, partner of their regular guest double bass player and vocalist Miranda Sykes, plays mandolin in American style.
"It's been in the air for a while now and when I looked at the songs we had to record they seemed to fall naturally into those two camps," he adds. "Rather than trying to mix them up, we decided to keep them apart and alternate them through the album."
Wake the Union was homegrown in Devon, produced by Mark Tucker at studios in Upottery, Topsham and Ebford. Guest players included Seth Lakeman – who co-wrote the opening track Haunt You with Steve – Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting, pedal steel guitar genius BJ Cole, Bellowhead's Paul Sartin, dobro maestro Phil Henry, percussionist Cormac Byrne, Rex Preston, Paul Downes and singer Jenna Witts.
Leonard Podolak and fiddler, clog dancer and harmonica ace Matt Gordon are special guests for the forthcoming tour. Steve confesses that Matt will be teaching him some Appalachian flat footing moves. You have been warned...