Steve Knightley: ‘We’ve done a lot of nights at Wickham where we’ve stormed it’

Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are Show of Hands
Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are Show of Hands
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Oh no, not another one’, sighs Steve Knightley on hearing that The Cellars at Eastney has closed.

‘It is a shame when people put so much effort into keeping these places going.’

There’s a lot of younger bands coming up through the busking scene which is comforting, like Keston Cobblers, like Skinny Lister

Steve Knightley of Show of Hands

It’s a venue that Steve and his musical partner in Show of Hands, the multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, have both played solo shows at.

And it’s the kind of place where acts like theirs have been able to gain a following – working the grassroots, from small independent venues to pubs and folk clubs.

Since starting in 1991, Show of Hands, who are joined on stage by bass player Miranda Sykes, have become one of the UK’s best-known and loved folk acts. An award-winning festival mainstay, they have also sold out the Royal Albert Hall three times and become regulars on national radio.

‘It’s an area we’ve been playing for years,’ says Steve, who was born in Hampshire, and spent a lot of time as a boy in and around Portsmouth, where his father worked. ‘That’s where we built our fan base up playing those sorts of places.’

But Steve remains optimistic about the future of roots music.

‘It doesn’t tend to be balanced by news about others opening,’ he adds. ‘There are people still putting on open mic nights and stuff like that.

‘I think the old folk club format is struggling, in that the first generation folkies who run them – when we were in our mid-teens, the clubs were being run by people 10 years older than us, sometimes less – are continuing to run them, but they’re declining as they’re obviously getting older.

‘The open mic scene has been a bit of a boost, and there’s a lot of them happing off of the folk radar that we don’t really know about, places like The Railway in Winchester where Frank Turner played, those sorts of venues. They’re a bit rockier, and a lot of those musicians don’t pass through the folk scene, they go a more mainstream route.’

And Steve can see where the next generation of acts are coming from: ‘There’s a lot of younger bands coming up through the busking scene which is comforting, like Keston Cobblers, like Skinny Lister, they’re all in their early 20s, they’re playing at Mumford sort of levels – they’re playing loud. CoCo and the Butterfields is another one.

‘They’re street-fit, they’re used to making noise whether it’s around one mic or whatever. Hopefully they’ll come along and replenish the scene.’

Show of Hands are back at Wickham Festival tonight. This time they’re going on before renowned socialist troubadour Billy Bragg.

‘Wickham has to be one of our favourites,’ says Steve. ‘We’ve done a lot of nights there where we’ve stormed it and people perceive the person who goes on last as the headliner, but it’s not always the best place to play in.

‘Sometimes it‘s better to go on before 9.30pm.’

And Steve is looking forward to catching The Bard of Barking’s set.

‘Billy’s stance has been like that for years. In the meantime he’s done the Woody Guthrie stuff, and other stuff like that, but he makes a certain sound.

‘He’s a better singer than I think he thinks he is, but his stuff can be quite strident and obviously he’s not just a songwriter, he’s almost like a brand – he’s got a viewpoint on certain things and he’s on telly all the time on things like Question Time.’

While Billy has never been away, a new generation of roots musicians appear to be increasingly politicised by the recent election. An album called Land of Hope and Fury, featuring the likes of Chris T-T, Luke Jackson and Moulettes, was swiftly put together in the wake of the recent general election result.

While Show of Hands are no strangers to social commentary in their songs – see 2010’s banker-skewering Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed, or 2003’s Country Life, Steve demurs when asked about projects like Land.

He explains: ‘It is a difficult one because you want to express your indignation and disappointment and outrage, but you have to do it through the medium of a great song.

‘I’ve heard some stuff, particularly after the tsunami and things like that, which was toe-cringingly awful.

‘But at the end of the day, the Dylan stuff lasts because they’re great songs, or things like This Land is Your Land, they are just great songs.

‘I tend to steer clear a bit of those sorts of reflex songs, a lot of it clouds your artistic judgement when you’re in the moment.

‘My approach is that the guy in AIG is a blue-collar American worker who is sold a home he can’t afford, it’s a kind of Springsteen model, the steelworker, or the farm labourer, it goes back to Tom Joad really.

‘If you play the character, it’s like the guy in Country Life, you play a distinct character that I can recognise, if you express the world through their eyes, it’s not so much you getting angry on stage, it’s the character, and that gives it more chapters to the story.’

After festival season, Show of Hands have got an autumn tour, where they’ll have a new album to plug, and the Portsmouth date promises to be a special one.

They will be the first musical act to play at the soon-to-reopen New Theatre Royal on November 25.

‘I can’t wait for that,’ he enthuses. ‘ It’s one of my favourite venues, I imagine it’s going to be extraordinary when it’s restored to its original glory.

‘The last thing we did in Portsmouth was the dreadful swimming pool (The Pyramids.

‘That was an interesting night.’

STEVE ON...

...their song Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed

It’s a song that gets refreshed by headlines all the time, unfortunately. I’ll have to write one about FIFA, that’ll be my next project.

... Mumford & Sons

They do play accordions and banjos and if that has brought a lot of people into listening to those instruments that’s a great thing, but they were never from the folk scene. They write very nice songs – melodic rock songs.

...Bellowhead calling it a day

There are 11 of them so I guess the sums just don’t add up. It is a shame because your headliners seem to be dropping by the wayside, there’s not many of us left.

Show of Hands play tonight at Wickham Festival. The event runs until Sunday. Tickets are £50 a day, under-16s half price, under-10s free.

Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk