In justice is a theme close to Steve Knightley’s heart and his prolific pen. In the past 20 years this leading singer/songwriter has come down firmly in defence of the rural poor and downtrodden squaddies, attacked fat cat bankers and highlighted the plight of exiled Chilean refugees who fled the Pinochet regime.
When we speak he’s just heard that shipbuilding in Portsmouth is to end after 800 years.
He’s angry and sad at what’s just happened to Britain’s premier naval city. He sees it as another great injustice, this time to the generations of city families who have built Britain’s warships.
The sea and Britain’s maritime history run throughout his sizeable canon of intelligent and thought-provoking work. As the driving force and frontman for Britain’s leading roots and acoustic band Show of Hands, the issue is bound to loom large when they appear in the city on November 16.
He sighs: ‘It’s such a sad blow for the city to see such a proud maritime tradition comes to an end.
‘The fine old seafaring folk songs we always sprinkle throughout our set will be tinged with sadness on the 16th.
‘As a maritime nation surely we need to retain the capability to build our own naval ships? But perhaps there might be another twist in the tale if Scotland votes for independence next year.’
In the roots world the band has become an institution despite never hitting the commercial heights. Their highest ranked album reached just 73 in the charts and they’ve never played the arena tours of which many dream . But for Knightley, and the band’s legions of faithful fans, that doesn’t measure the group’s success.
‘We’re at a level now where we play in nice venues and people are happy to see us,’ he says.
Knightley and sultan of strings multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer have been playing together for more than two decades. These days they’re joined by sultry-voiced upright bassist Miranda Sykes. The trio have sold out the Royal Albert Hall four times and won the Best Live Act award at the 2004 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
‘I suppose, as a folk singer, you’re not in a very big pond and we’re quite big fish in it,’ he adds.
‘We’ve reached a nice position in the scene and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t tick over, as long as we keep adding new songs and ideas.’
Knightley refers to a lot of bands who will do everything they can to reach the top of the carts.
He says: ‘A lot of musicians are in division three but want to be in the premiership. It tears them up because they’re not performing to 10,000 people, but it’s never been the way we played it.
‘It’s about having enjoyable days playing music, whether that would be at Hambledon Village Hall or the Royal Albert Hall.’
When we speak, the group is staying in north Wales for a residential workshop and concert, playing to about 30 people over two days. They put it on every year.
And that’s exactly what they enjoy doing – playing to loyal fans all over the country. Knightley admits they’ve pretty much been on tour non-stop for the past two decades.
Show Of Hands are no strangers to Portsmouth or the surrounding area.
Southampton-born Knightley used to live at Cosham, and has fond memories of growing up here.
He explains: ‘I lived up on Portsdown Hill and we used to wander up and down over the hill. It was my playground.’
For the band, Portsmouth is one of their ‘strongest areas’.
He adds: ‘We built up a following of people in the pubs of Gosport when we first started. Many people only saw us because they were dragged along by their friends, and then they became fans.’
Knightley and Beer met as teenagers while playing in different bands in East Devon. Show of Hands were formed in 1992, when Steve was nearly 40, after they played in a number of folk clubs. Sykes joined the line-up in 2004.
The Pyramids’ gig will include ‘a smattering of old naval traditions’ and numbers from the band’s back catalogue of 13 studio albums, including Wake The Union.
‘We’re also doing our own opening act,’ explains Steve.
‘We are going to perform three songs each from our own projects, which should be quite fun.’
But there is a slight problem. It’s rare in the roots world for two leading bands to bump into each other on tour, especially on the same night in the same city.
But that’s exactly what’s happening on November 16 as 11-piece band Bellowhead are performing at the Portsmouth’s Guildhall.
Knightley grimaces audibly. ‘It’s not ideal is it? We will all lose. There will be fans who would otherwise see Show of Hands who will go to see Bellowhead and the other way round.
‘But I suspect more will go to see them than us. They’re big fish in the pond at the moment.’
He adds: ‘We will probably lose 100 or so to Bellowhead, but both gigs are selling well.’
Having celebrated their 10th and 15th anniversaries with those sell-out Albert Hall gigs, it’s clear Show Of Hands have a fiercely loyal fan base. But for Knightley, it’s not about the venues.
‘It’s not a good mind-set. All the venues are memorable and all different. We’ve performed concerts in theatres and I love the old music halls like Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal.’
And now it’s time for the three-piece to hang up their Show Of Hands’s instrument – temporarily. ‘We’ve been on the road for 22 years now and this will be our last tour for a year while we go our separate ways and do solo projects.’
WHERE AND WHEN
Steve Knightley will be performing as part of Show Of Hands at The Pyramids Centre, Southsea, on November 16. Tickets: £17.50 on (023) 9279 9977 or go to pyramids-live.co.uk.