A five track introduction to Steve Knightley

The award-winning songwriter Steve Knightley places tremendous importance on the delivery of a story. The songs he has written as both a solo artist and member of the acclaimed folk duo Show of Hands often tell a captivating tale and his forthcoming run of solo dates aim to allow him to do the same, in between the songs. Expect stories and anecdotes from an eventful career at Steve’s Band on the Wall-promoted performance at Hallé St Peter’s on 3rd February, and ahead of it, check out our five track introduction to the man and his music, below.

Show of Hands – Country Life

Life in the British countryside can be idyllic, but it can also be terribly trying for those in its villages and at the heart of its farming and agricultural communities. Economic and societal change has challenged many who observe a traditional ‘country way of life’ and that’s a topic approached in this cleverly-crafted Show of Hands number, lifted from their 2003 album of the same name. A candid and scathing retort to the conditions that brought about such difficulties; it does what any great political folk song should and makes us consider the wider situation as well as the affect our actions have upon it. It’s a rabble-rousing track with wonderful folk fiddling and a gripping harmonica solo, but also lends itself to stripping down, with the lyrics becoming the focal point. Classic songwriting and Knightley at his best.

Bob Dylan – Girl from the North Country

A defining composition from the Bob Dylan songbook and one which was recently chosen to title an Old Vic theatre production utilising his compositions; it’s no surprise that Girl from the North Country has known so many covers and incarnations. First recorded in ‘63, re-recorded with Johnny Cash in 1969 and tackled later by artists like Roy Harper and Leon Russell, it too has left its mark on many a musician including Knightley, who covered it for his 2011 album Live in Somerset. Knightley’s version begins much like the original, with acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice the only audible presences, but then unfolds with a soft and warm folk arrangement, featuring strings, lap steel guitar and accordion. A beautiful arrangement of a near-indisputable folk classic.

Steve Knightley – Track of Words

The term ‘lost album’ may conjure up thoughts of The Beach Boys’ once-abandoned SMiLE project, or even Gene Clark’s criminally overlooked country-noir masterwork No Other, but Steve Knightley’s Track of Words is something of a lost album too. Originally recorded in 1999, it was revisited by Knightley, producer/engineer Mark Tucker and Show of Hands bandmate Phil Beer a decade later for the subsequent Track of Words – Retraced release and captures the title song in particular with clarity and precision. A composition affirming the power of words, Knightley sings ‘I lay a track of words before you, so let them be your guide’, offering a comfort echoed in the song’s sparse but warmly modulating instrumentation. It shows a contrast to the political poignancy of a song like Country Life, inviting an intimacy through the lyrics and recording.

Steve Knightley – The Keeper

Originally recorded for Show of Hands’ 1995 album Lie of the Land, Knightley’s ballad The Keeper, which tells the tale of a gamekeeper involved in the battle of the somme, was re-recorded in 2004 for a collaborative album with since-famed folk musician Seth Lakeman and singer-songwriter Jenna Witts, just 16-years-old at the time. Writing for the Living Tradition, Jane Brace said of the 2004 version ‘Seth [Lakeman] has breathed brilliant new life into Steve’s The Keeper… adding a “Jacky Boy” chorus merely hinted at in Steve’s more downbeat original’. The song’s solemnity and autobiographical delivery reference deep-rooted folk songwriting traditions and the song possesses a timeless quality; a virtue of its ever-relevant subject matter. He performs it solo in the below video.

Traditional – Ratecliffe Highway

Featuring on his latest album All At Sea, a companion to his tour of the same name, which saw Knightley performing numbers from his repertoire of ‘songs of seafarers, wreckers, traders, lovers and smugglers’ at Coastal venues throughout the country, the traditional number is one well known among traditional folk fans. It’s familiar modulations, the likes of which were given new life by such artists as Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy in the sixties, lend it to solo performance and make it a most enthralling listen. Described by Mike Yates as ‘one of the most notorious thoroughfares of early 19th century London’ the Highway and song dedicated to it have captivated a host of folk singers and when Knightley performs it, it affords him the opportunity to play his mandocello, something of a baritone mandolin with a wonderful tone.

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Saturday | 03.02.18

Steve Knightley (Show of Hands) at Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester

Band on the Wall, Manchester