On the road with Steve Knightley
14 June 2019 at St Andrew's Church
Let’s start at the end. Folk singer Steve Knightley had been entertaining an audience of 160 in our acoustically outstanding church for over two hours. He had escorted us on a personal journey down the backroads of his musical career, playing old and new songs, layered with anecdotes and amusing observations. He had everyone in the palm of his hand, so when he asked a third of the audience to click their fingers, another third to rub their hands and the back rows to stamp their feet, they obliged willingly.
The effect created a gentle rhythm reminiscent of a thunderstorm. Knightley ended his last song with the line ‘it’s raining again’ and walked off slowly to the pitter-patter sound of a spell-bound audience. It was a magical moment to end his intimate set. We felt we knew him; we had become his friends and we were sorry to see him go.
Rewind to the start. How was this intimacy achieved?
When it was announced late last year that Steve Knightley would be playing at St Andrew’s as part of his 2019 solo tour, it caused a stir in Hertford folk circles and the local area. Playing as an acoustic singer songwriter for over 40 years, Knightley has built a reputation as one of England’s most accomplished folk performers. Best known for being one half of the renowned roots duo Show of Hands with his long-time friend Phil Beer, it was seen as a coup to get Knightley to play at St Andrew’s.
Show of Hands have been together for over 25 years, playing a variety of venues from village pubs to London’s Royal Albert Hall; from minor folk clubs to international festivals, including Glastonbury and WOMAD. It is this tapestry of experience, touring throughout Europe and the UK that has provided Knightley with rich material for most of his anecdotes and songs.
In recent years he has themed his solo tours. This concert came under the banner ‘Songs & Stories Part 2 – Roadworks’ and followed last year’s Part 1, which drew on the songs that had influenced his early career. This time, he set out to describe – through a series of amusing vignettes and original songs – a typical day in the life of a touring folk singer.
Self-depreciating and observational, his stories featured people and situations that he had come across on the road, playing 200 gigs a year.
Safe as Houses, Cars and Country Life
He talked about his early ambition to perform. ‘I said to my Mum, when I grow up I want to be a musician. She replied: ‘well, you can’t do both’’. He revealed that, after many concerts, he is often invited to stay with the organiser and then feels obliged to continue playing late at night in a stranger’s sitting room. It often takes a few minutes in the morning to remember where he is. He stayed in someone’s home one night and woke the next morning to find that his host had gone to work and locked him in the house. This inspired the ironical song Safe as Houses. And then there was the debate with the audience about whether the cream or the jam should be spread first on a scone.
Other songs described driving from London to Brighton on a bank-holiday Monday (Cars, which finished with a much-heralded guitar solo, ‘applause please’) or his best-known song Country Life about the hardships of rural poverty and the lack of opportunity for young people in country regions.
Worthy of applause
He finished with an amusing story about taking his sister to Berlin to see the Rolling Stones and introducing her to Mick Jagger. ‘Those guys are amazing,’ he said. ‘What are they? In their 70s? And they still love going out on stage and playing to an audience.’
This is clearly something that drives Knightley as well. There is a dichotomy in his life, being torn between the hardships of touring and the buzz of being on stage playing to a live audience. ‘All I want is applause’ he said with self-mocking irony.
Well, applause is what he got. Applause for the skill of his guitar playing, applause for his songs but, most of all, applause for the generous, relaxed friendliness of his stage presence. It’s no wonder we enjoyed his company for a couple hours. It was another notch for St Andrew’s on the leader board of Hertford’s best musical venues. Nice one Steve. And thank you to Chris Seward for organising a great evening that, by the by, raised over £800 for church funds.