There will be few better markers of the First World War centenary this year.
CD 1: 22 tracks, 38 mins
CD 2: 12 tracks, 42 mins
Hands On Music
Of all the celebrations marking the centenary of the First World War this year, two have stood out to me. The greatest was the visually stunning blood-filled moat around the Tower of London, made from red ceramic poppies, each one remembering a soldier’s death. The other is one you can keep at home.
Show of Hands are experts at getting a story out in three minutes. They use their sensitivity and creative touch deftly in the two-disc Centenary. They are also getting into the habit of releasing two-part works.The Wake the Union CD was split between British and American-inspired songs; the Double Bill DVD had a documentary about making the Union album, as well as a live set from Shrewsbury; and now this comes with two complementary discs.
Disc One is the more official part, which sets famous war poems to a subtle backing of music. This is the work that they were commissioned to do. They agreed to do it on the basis of the second disc, which is a more regular musical set.
Husband and wife actors Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) and Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter, Vera Drake) read the poems expressively, which are largely ones you would expect, because they are so good and have already stood the test of time. So we get such graphic works as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which describes a gas attack, and his “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which also clearly shows that he was there, experiencing it all, his fury glowing through lines such as,
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.”
But the war affected all of life and this selection reflects that, from the bullying, blackmailing tone of Jessie Pope’s “The Call” and “Who’s for the Game?” trying to get young boys to sign up, through to a desolate mother, mourning for her son.
Disc Two is the flipside of the first, putting the songs up front, and only occasionally spoken over. Here is the band in its element.
One of several highlights is a straight musical version of A. E. Houseman’s “The Lads in their Hundreds,” which puts a jaunty tune to the poem and brings home the point – that at the town fair there are some boys who will be back in future years, but others who will have died, and only the roll of war’s cruel and random dice will choose between them.
It is one that could have been on any Show of Hands album, as could the beautifully told and poignant “Coming Home;” or “The Gamekeeper,” which inventively and powerfully tells a man’s story, drawing parallels between the gamekeeper’s day job and war work, when facing lines of guns. “The Padre” does a similar job, bringing out the compassionate heart of the priest, who works for all sorts, “the saint, the sinner / the seasoned veterans, the volunteer / the men of every rank and station / so full of courage, so lean in years,” and who prays that “all who witnessed such destruction may never witness the like again.”
There are echoes of straight World War One songs (“The Sunshine of your Smile”) but even with these, Steve Knightley and Phil Beer fashion a contemporary edge that makes them easier to relate to. The medley “Goodbyee /If You Were The Only Girl in the World / The Lovely Nymph” blends these songs with the barest, rhythmic instrumentation until a plaintive fiddle takes the track to its faded end.
Elsewhere, we get an à capella “Silent Night,” which reminds us of the famous Christmas truce, and “The Blue Cockade” from the live Shrewsbury set on Double Bill, featuring some very fine dobro from Philip Henry.
Across both discs lie vivid imagery, powerful emotions, dignity and compassion that bring out the tragedy that war poured onto so many splintered communities, plundered families and wrecked lives. This is a job superbly done. You will want to listen to it way more than once a century.