It never stops amazing and delighting me, that performers like Steve Knightly who fill the Colston Hall and Wells Cathedral and the Albert Hall are quite happy to come and perform in a not-quite-full school theatre in front of I suppose 100 people. You might almost think they were in it for the sheer love of the music, or something.
Maybe I have started down a path in which all music -- and all political literature, and all episodes of Doctor Who -- can be neatly divided into "authentic" and "inauthentic"; maybe this will lead, inexorably, to me sitting in the back of the Albert Hall in 2012 shouting "Judas!" But I liked Steve better in this format than I have at any of the book showpiece Show of Hands gigs I've been to - just the words and the music. Take Galway Farmer: I only knew it from the "Best Of..." album, belted out in front of a big Irish band, with an audience that already knows the words and the punch line. Tonight, Steve presented it as nature intended. Unaccampanied. Almost....dangerous....just your voice and and a story and faith that the audience is going to care
But at the first she nearly fell
I cursed my farmers luck to hell
The second and third she took quite well
Way behind the leaders
Then moving swiftly from the back
Found the rails and caught the pack
Ten to go and from the back
Her hooves were drumming thunder
Steve is amused that the song now appears on website listing "tradtional" Irish ballads.
Similarly, his grim, murderous re-imagining of Widdecombe Fair "
But the landlord said that the last thing seen
Was a boy and a girl out on the moor
That was all he knew and he showed me the door
has a real intensity when you are only ten feet away from the singer.
It was clever idea of someone's to pair the rather grim and gravelly Steve with the sweet, baby faced Devonian Jim Causley -- no longer with Makwin, it seems, but more than able to to accompany himself on the accordian. Although I very much liked the the musical jiggery pokery in the Mawkin:Causley version, the solo Jim Jones seemed to do a better job of capturing the dramatic intensity of the piece. Jim stands on the stage with a sparkly, twinkle eyed persona, and then sings songs which are so much older than he is with total conviction: poor Dylan Thomas dreaming about the Summer Girls he's never going to get off with; the Radio Ballad about the old unemployed railwayman whose "given his whistle one last blow and swapped his old pole for a hoe". A survey once revealed that Mr Hitler was the most hated man in history, but that Dr Beeching came a close second.
Not everything works. I really think that the mighty Country Life needs the full amplified pop treatment to deliver its punch, although I could see the point of pairing it up with Downbound Train (written by some American.) But in between your angry songs, and the grim murder ballads and the worthy political torch-songs like Santiago and Cousin Jack he can be very very funny. He finished the first set with a daft number suggested when his kids started playing that infuriating "repeating everything you say" game. "Stop Copying Me", it's called, and, of course, its a call and response song with the audience repeating every line. (Which, come to think of it, manages to make some serious points about file sharing and selling exam papers.)
Yes, Show of Hands are ubiquitous, too popular to be kosher, sometimes drift into over-indulgent singer-song writer stuff and once blotted their copybook by writing a patriotic number, but this is the pure, raw story telling of a man who really does know what it is to stand in the street with an old guitar.