Phil Beer Solo 13/05/2014 Cambridge Junction
Live Review – Spiral Earth
Tonight Phil Beer is performing solo, just him, about five stringed instruments and an almost bottomless well of anecdotes and stories. Having just completed the fearsome Feast of Fiddles tour and his own band tour he takes centre stage. And what a presence, now I don’t mean that because he is a large bloke – in actual fact he is looking extremely well tonight, maybe that’s because it is his birthday – It is the tactile pleasure he takes in handling the different instruments, tuning up becomes the backdrop to another story or chords and riffs illustrate an anecdote about Davy Graham before he launches into one of his songs.
This isn’t just a guy on stage playing some songs – its a little glimpse into his world where folk, blues, hymns, the sea, the west country and a life spent in music combine to make a true show.
Phil has spent the past seven months working on the latest Show of Hands album (with a twist) ‘Centenary’ – It is a celebration of the poetry and music from and inspired by the First World War (a pet subject of his). There are two CD’s one of the spoken word by Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter and his wife Imelda Staunton, set to music by Steve and Phil. Then the second CD features songs of the period plus original material by Knightley.
The twist is that it is on a major label, they were invited by Ian Brown, who manages ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ who are on Universal – so then they were in the slightly strange place of working on it behind closed doors as the majors like the ‘big reveal’, so the usual interaction and insights their fans get during recording were not an option. Phil is at pains to explain that they have been beavering away in the studio and not idly sitting on their arses for the last seven months.
Beer has been interested in the First World War all of his life, so he knew virtually all of the songs that dated from the period. When he and Knightley have played in Belgium they played in a small pub in Flanders and also visited the Menin Gate and listened to the Last post being played. Phil plays a short medley from the album at the end of his gig. You can’t imagine a better combination of musicians and voices to capture the horror and sadness, yet also the vein of dark humour that soldiers find in the darkest of situations.
Phil is still in love with the music he makes, whether that is a Little Feat cover, an intricate fiddle piece or the latest song that Show of Hands partner Steve Knightley has written. He is a true multi-instrumentalist, revelling in the idiosyncrasies of each one, making a joke of the ukeleles provenance whilst plucking pure gold from it.
With Show of Hands being such a well known entity it is easy to forget that they both had careers before forming the duo. Phil talks of the impact that Davy Grahams playing style had on him in the late 60s, then touring with a band in America in the mid eighties supporting 10,000 maniacs – all things that make you realise just how much experience he has.
Talking before the gig Phil laughed that his career is almost about face to the normal route, he started off with many collaborations and is now doing much more solo stuff. He does self effacement very well, this is the guy that has sold out the Albert Hall many times with SOH and toured much of Europe and North America. What sets him apart from many is his generosity, he was at great pains to make sure I spoke to his support for the night Jess Morgan (which I did and will run as another interview!). He also launched Jackie Oates career with a brilliant and sensitive production job on her first album, I don’t think anyone has captured her as well in recordings since.
The guys have eased off the gas with Show of Hands to a degree, it is easy to get locked into a cycle of tour/album/festivals and repeat ad infinitum. With Steve doing his ‘Grow Your Own Gig’ tour you can see that the change of focus and pace is recharging their batteries, that will feed back into SOH and hopefully keep all the different aspects of their careers energised.
A Phil Beer gig is one spent in the company of a true craftsman, a master musician ad consummate performer.