2012 will be a milestone year for folk icons Show of Hands, as they mark a 20-year stand-out career with a celebratory fourth â€śBig Gigâ€ť at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Devon duo of singer songwriter Steve Knightley and multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer have forged one of the most successful ever partnerships in acoustic roots music and have already scored three sell-outs at the world famous London venue in 1996, 2001 and 2007.
The triple BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winners (Best Live Act, Best Duo and Best Original Song) are undeniably one of the strongest current forces in acoustic music â€“ Englandâ€™s finest and most popular roots duo and something of a â€śpeopleâ€™s bandâ€ť, regularly voicing the hopes, fears and life stories of scores of people in song and with a mailing list more than 17,000 strong.
An alchemist couldnâ€™t have come up with a more potent, magical mix than that of
Beer, who can, as The Scotsman observed, â€śplays nearly every stringed instrument known to manâ€ť and the inspired Knightley, described by Radio 2â€™s Mike Harding as â€śone of Englandâ€™s greatest singer songwritersâ€ť.
One of Devonâ€™s greatest success stories started with the guys growing up on opposite sides of the River Exe, though Steve was born in Southampton and Phil hailed from Cornwall.
Their teenage kicks were playing in different bands but eventually their paths crossed and they joined forces to play the Exeter pub and club scene before they inevitably took off in different directions.
After gaining a degree at Coventry University, Steve started teaching in London and playing the capitalâ€™s rock scene while Phil pursued the life of a pro musician, playing in Arizona Smoke Review and the revered Albion Band. But when Steve returned to the West Country in the mid 80s they started gigging again and in 1991 Show of Hands was formed.
Unusually their first album was a live one. â€śLive 92â€ť was recorded at Dorsetâ€™s Bull Hotel in Bridport and its excellent reviews helped them break into the festival circuit and tour with Ralph McTell.
After working with exiled Chilean musicians in the band Alianza – which saw them learning the South American cuatro and soaking up new rhythms – Steve wrote such memorable songs as Santiago, Armadas and Columbus (Didnâ€™t Find America).
Â After their first studio album Beat About the Bush Show of Hands released Lie of the Land in 1995 which Q declared â€śstartlingly goodâ€ť making it their folk album of the year.
Â But despite an escalating fan base the guys still couldnâ€™t command London gigs. So they thought theyâ€™d create a modest one of their own â€“ at the Royal Albert Hall! Hiring the hall to the amusement of the media and cynicism of sceptics they had the last laugh, with a sold out show. It was a huge gamble but the night of March 24, 1996 proved that for this enigmatic, indy duo anything was possible.
Â Five years later they were at it again, reprising their appearance at Kensingtonâ€™s â€śvillage hallâ€ť to celebrate their 10th anniversary and this time the sell-out was recorded by Carlton for the ITV Network.
Â A particularly productive time followed with another studio album Cold Frontier (2001) and The Path (2003), an instrumental coastal odyssey commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the South West Coast Path.
Â In 2003 they released Country Life, with its stand out title track that went on to be used as a soundtrack by the Commission for Rural Communities for two films, launched in Westminster. Praised for itsâ€ťfinger on the pulseâ€ť topicality about the decline of rural life, Steve was later interviewed on BBC Radio 4â€™s Today programme.
In 2004 after numerous nominations, Show of Hands struck gold at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, winning the coveted Best Live Act title â€“ the only category voted for by the public.
Â They were joined by the brilliant Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals for their autumn 2004 UK tour â€“ a tour which triggered a live 22-track double album As You Were â€“ and Miranda has enriched the Show of Hands sound ever since.
Â May 2006 was a defining moment when they unveiled a strident new Show of Hands sound with Witness produced by Grammy-nominated Simon Emmerson and â€śMassâ€ťof Afro Celts. Songlines called the album â€śA beautiful portrait of modern rural Britain, intensely compassionate and filled with carefully contained rage.â€ť
Â Described as â€śa cinematic journey of the West Countryâ€ť it was widely acclaimed with some of Steveâ€™s finest writing in the title track, The Dive and the stirring Roots – a rally call for the English to get behind their identity and musical heritage spurred by a certain comment by Dr Kim Howells â€“ that his idea of hell was three Somerset folk singers in the pub! Roots found champions in unlikely quarters with some even calling for it to be the new national anthem!
In 2006 they were also somewhat quirkily voted Greatest Devonians in a poll beating historic figures like Sir Francis Drake and modern day music icons Chris Martin, Muse and Joss Stone while they were later voted the West Countryâ€™s favourite musicians in an ITV series and invited to join the Westcountry Hall of Fame.
Despite all their success they have never sold out on the West Country and on St Georgeâ€™s Day 2006 they performed a fund raising gig that helped save a rural Devon post office.
When the time came to think of how best to celebrate their incredible 15-year partnership in 2007, the Albert Hall place beckoned again. This time it sold out rapidly – a testament to the huge popularity they have achieved â€“ not overnight but through hard work and with a sound that continues to dodge the genres and puzzle the industry.
They continued to celebrate their enduring partnership with a definite double â€śBest ofâ€ť CD, trawling an enviable back catalogue and also made appearances with Peter Gabriel and Jools Holland.
Â Two of the most popular ambassadors for acoustic music, their music loses nothing in translation and they have taken it all over the world, from Australia to India, Germany to Canada, the Netherlands to Hong Kong plus key festival appearances including Glastonbury, WOMAD, Cambridge and Celtic Connections.
Â In 2008 they played nearly 30 UK summer festivals including making their WOMAD debut and headlined the Welsh Proms first Folk Prom at St. Davidâ€™s Hall, Cardiff. That autumn they undertook a triple tour including their first standing gig tour and a â€śSpires and Beamsâ€ť tour of UK churches, cathedrals and historic buildings with spectacular sell outs at Exeter and Ely Cathedrals.
In early 2009 they returned to Glasgowâ€™s famous Celtic Connections Festival for the third time whilst in the summer Phil took time out to fulfil a lifelong dream of crewing in the Tall Ships race and Steve made solo appearances at festivals including Glastonbury.
Â June 2009 saw Show of Hands make a coveted appearance on BBC-1â€™s flagship rural affairs Countryfile singing Knightleyâ€™s hard-hitting Country Life while that autumn saw the release of their new studio album, Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed, produced by Stu Hanna of Megson and a 37-date tour of English county towns.
Â The topical title track of the album â€“ Knightleyâ€™s no holds barred lyrics about bankers and bonuses, MPs and expenses â€“ quickly struck a chord with media and public alike, gaining a huge amount of airplay culminating in success at the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where it was voted Best Original Song. It was a memorable night for the band with Knightley and Beer also scooping the Best Duo title.
Numerous prime time TV and radio appearances have followed. In February 2010 they were interviewed and performed live on BBC-1â€™s Breakfast programme and in April Steve and his songwriting was the subject of a half hour Radio 4 programme, Open Country.
After touring Germany they embarked on a UK Standing Room Only tour of standing venues in spring 2010 before a record number of summer festival appearances where they were the headline act at some 16 events while that autumn 2010 they made their debut at several English cathedrals on another â€śSpires and Beamsâ€ť tour.
2011 saw Show of Hands in great shape with a February appearance on BBC1â€™s flagship political programme, The Andrew Marr Show, singing Arrogance Ignorance and Greed in front of guests including Foreign Minister William Hague.
In the same month Phil Beer was named Musician of the Year in the 2011 Spiral Awards, run by popular music website Spiral Earth. Thousands of people voted for him and he polled 42% of the vote to give him a resounding win in the category.
Key appearances last year included Hyde Park on the headline-hitting â€śMarch for the Alternativeâ€ť rally day and headlining a folk music night at London financial centre Canary Wharf, whilst Steve joined fellow folk musicians performing in front of protestors at Occupy London outside St Paulâ€™s Cathedral. Festival appearances included a headline slot at Shrewsbury Folk Festival where Steve is now co-patron and Steve took part in the acclaimed multii artist Cecil Sharp songwriting project which tours in 2012.
Last autumn Steve and Phil decided to embark on their first duo tour in four years, coinciding with the release of their â€śBacklog 2 â€ś album which revisited songs from the period 1992-2003 ahead of a concert tour which saw them reuniting with Miranda Sykes and with American singer songwriter guest Richard Shindell.
In November Show of Hands’ acclaimed take on George Harrisonâ€™s If I Needed Someone featured on an exclusive MOJO tribute CD tribute to â€śthe quiet Beatleâ€ť marking the 10th anniversary of his death whilst in December they became patrons of the revamped Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in their home city of Exeter.
2012 has got off to a bright start with Steve nominated for the 2012 Spiral Awards â€śBest Male Singerâ€ť title â€“ the awards are open to public vote until March.
Show of Hands will embark on a tour of Germany in March, following Steveâ€™s solo tour supported by Devon duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin and Philâ€™s solo outings and concerts with his own Phil Beer Band.
Then it will be time toÂ preparing for their key event of 2012 â€“ The Royal Albert Hall gig on Easter Saturday (April 7) – followed by a string of UK summer festival dates and their own signature festival at Dorsetâ€™s Abbotsbury Sub Tropical Gardens in July.
Knightley, who has been hailed as one of the countryâ€™s best singer-songwriters, says: â€śHiring somewhere as high profile as the Albert Hall is obviously not something you undertake lightly but itâ€™s a challenge we relish. We are lucky enough to have an incredible fan base, not only in the UK but in France, Holland, Germany and beyond and hopefully a lot of them will want to help us celebrate 20 years as Show of Hands.”