The opportunity to see a Show of Hands concert in a small venue is too good to miss, and this one was, potentially, going to be extra special given the fact that it was to be the final show in The Cathedrals Tour. Before FATEA gets inundated with complaints that Otford doesn't have a cathedral, I will just paraphrase Steve Knightley who explained that there was a sense of completeness as to how the tour had unfolded, in the fact that the tour had started in St.Andrew's Harberton and was now finishing in the parish church of St. Bartholomew's in Otford, a small rural village in Kent.
Of added interest to me was the fact that I had the privilege of being able to be present not just for the concert itself, but also the load-in, preparations, sound-checks and load-out, which certainly added an extra dimension to the whole event.
With the tour manager having arrived around noon to reconnoitre the venue, just before 1 p.m. it was somewhat of a surprise to see the a multi-tonne Fly-by-Nite tour truck appear, with a stage crew of five, plus driver. Yes, St.Bartholomew's was getting the full Cathedral Tour rig. I'm not sure whether Richard Worssam, the Vicar, saw this as a good thing or not. (As it transpired the full amplification stacks were not needed!). From this time on, until the doors to the nave of the church were opened to the audience just before 7.30 the place was just a hive of non-stop activity, with a myriad of tasks being undertaken involving lighting, amplification, on-stage monitoring, merchandising, signage, catering, (yes SOH provide their own rider, courtesy of click and deliver, complete with microwave and fridge), the setting up of a temporary tour manager's office, and, somewhat bizarrely, the removal of one of the low hanging church chandeliers! Everyone knew their role and communication was facilitated through the wearing two-way devices. Things progressed calmly without a hint of stress being apparent, despite the, I think it would be fair to say, slight surprise of the crew on their first sight of the venue.
The arrival of the group for sound checks later in the afternoon was enlightening. The detail and professionalism involved in striving to achieve a top-class aural experience for the audience, and indeed performers, was incredible, (as anyone who has seen Steve's YouTube sound check video will be aware, he is, quite rightly, a stickler for audio sound perfection). Shortly before the entry of the audience, final health and safety checks were undertaken, and two or three of the crew were able to grab a quick 20 minutes before the 8.00 p.m. show start.
The evening opened with a wonderful set from Kirsty Merryn, who had been the support act throughout the tour. Her seven-song, half-hour slot included material from her just-released, and much-lauded CD 'She and I', together with older songs from the 'Just Winter' and 'Stories of Our Time' E.P.s. Keep an eye out for this talented perfomer who possesses an enchanting voice and personality, you won't be disappointed.
Given the breadth and depth of material available to them after so many years together, (is it 26, the last 13 with Miranda?), the selection on offer tonight worked symbiotically with the venue, indeed we were assured that the set would be the same one that had been delivered thoroughout the Cathedrals Tour. Thus, gone were the more raucous festival pleasers of the summer such as Galway Farmer and Cousin Jack,, in their place more sensitive songs from their canon, presumably selected to best fit the acoustic challenges presented by the various venues. Certainly tonight, in such an intimate setting, the choices were spot on.
Whilst the sound was exceptional, the lighting effects throughout the nave of the church were astounding, reds, blues, purples, oranges, greens and whites picking up every detail and shadow of the architecture of the windows, monuments, (in particular the large English Rococo sculpture dedicated to Charles Polhill), vaulted ceilings and remaining chandeliers. I would venture that rarely has the church been visually shown to better effect.
Following the interval, with only minimal lighting illuminating the altar, the trio of Phil Beer, Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes entered the nave from the back of the church delivering the entire, eerie a cappella version of The Old Lych Way from the aisle in virtual darkness. Relocating this tale of ghostly funeral processions and monks from Dartmoor to a church seemed particualrly apposite; O Requiem aeternam indeed.
Songs delivered from the stage began, somewhat appropriately, with The Preacher, which is followed by Cold Heart of England, lamenting as it does the loss of local businesses from our high streets and the inexorable growth of out-of-town retail parks.
Following a discourse on the levels of reverberation within venues on the Tour, apparently Chichester was just over 5 seconds, with St. Bartholomew's coming in at 2 and a bit, (but don't worry Richard, we won't tell the Ecclesiastical equivalent of OFSTED if you don't), it was time for audience participation on Hallow's Eve, and hearty it was too. There seems to be something uplifting about singing in a place of worship, even if you have no religious faith.
There was then to be a change in mood, as three songs commemorating the First World War,
The Keeper, Requiem and Chris Hoban's The Lily and The Rose were poignantly delivered. Am I only the only one to be of the opinion that Miranda has added exponentail quality to the group (not to suggest that they were anything other than excellent as a duo). The voice of an angel, singing in a church - it doesn't come much better.
The relatively new No Secrets, described thus by Steve 'No Secrets was my piece of advice for a friend when he got married, but it also came to mind as the ethos of our business' lifted the sombre mood created previously.
Despite only partial recovery from a heavy cold, Phil took centre stage next to deliver what he described as one of Steve's best songs Exile. Cracking it was too. I think most people would give their right arm to be able to sing half that well when they were fully fit. Smile She Said followed, with Kirsty Merryn joining Steve on stage to sensitively deliver this as a duet.
Next, a powerful and emotive I.E.D Science or Nature before Sidney Carter's ominous Crow on the Cradle was superbly delivered by Phil. With audience favourite The Blue Cockade reaching the parts that other colour cockade's merely aspire to, we were lead into a compelling version of Innocents's Song/Gwithain, with Marcus on lights augmenting the aural delights with visual.
The inevitable encore was demanded by what was, unsurprisingly, a sell-out audience. The Flood, a song which fully demonstrates Steve's undoubted ability to convey a sense of social conscience through song lyrics was introduced by him sadly reflecting that 'you write a song and it gets updated by headlines, and this one more than any other'. Its sensitive reception by the audience was followed by Keep Hauling which saw the trio leave the stage to deliver this last song a cappella, in the aisle again with lighting restricted to the altar as before, leaving the knave the by the route they entered, thus giving a perfect symmetry to a splendid evening.
In true Black Adder fashion, I'll wager no one has ever left a Show of Hands concert without a smile on their face. Tonight was one of those sublime evenings where everything just seemed to be perfect.
The evening. however, was not totally over. To return to where I started, the performers now gave time and attention to the audience by sitting at a table to sign merchandise and have photos taken, (again to mis-quote Steve's comment made about the raffle at the Kensington Village Hall, (RAH), 25th Anniversay show, 'I bet Eric Clapton doesn't do that.' From the moment the house lights were turned on the crew began the task of dismantling the equipment in preparation for the next gig, and somewhere around midnight and the country's smallest listed building, the duckhouse on the village pond, was left in peace once more.
Many thanks to Steve, Phil, Miranda, Richard Worssam, Keith the promotor, and not forgetting the road crew for their help and patience.
David Pratt, words and pictures
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