When instruments first were plugged into sockets through the 1960s and 70s to combine elements of electrifying rock with traditional, acoustic British folk music, certain groups became big, big, explosively BIG on the hit-making, gig-making front. One such pioneer group was Steeleye Span, and they’ve been going ever since. Now, more than half a century on, they’re setting off on yet another busy UK tour.
But who’s in the line-up these days? Might this be another case of Trigger’s broom? Road-sweeper Trig in Only Fools And Horses proudly proclaimed he’d had the same broom for twenty years; eventually, he added that, mind you, it had had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles! Well, yes, illustrious members like Martin Carthy have come and gone through the years, Martin being the one who suggested naming the group after a chap in an old, old song. But still at the head of Steeleye Span now, just as then, is Maddy Prior (MBE), singing away since 1969. Meanwhile, the driving drum trug and cymbal shimmer – and distinctive, long white beard – belong to Liam Genockey, drummer from 1989-97 and again since 2002, while Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair’s twiddlingly busy furores of guitar-wailing force have been delighting since 2015, and Julian Littman, on guitar and keyboard (oft used as musical drone) has been in the mix since 2011. Multi-genre bass-player Roger Corey is more recent while newbie on this tour is violinist Athena Octavia with some mellow, haunting viola tones and jolly, jigging, foot-tapping fiddle playing. Alas, no mandolin! But Maddy did have her little ukulele in her hand for the popular New York Girls, substituting for Peter Sellars, who was persuaded to play uke on the original recording.
Apart from Liam, all contribute to vocals and harmonies, which are at their very best, when voices get to ring out a capella, unobscured by loud instrumentation, allowing their full blend and the lyrics to come fully to the fore. More would be nice. On the other hand, there was only the one exhilarating instrumental without vocals, and more of those would be welcome, too.
Story-telling folk songs from all eras, from massively well-known to newly penned, are, with a little light humour, calmly and plainly introduced mainly by Maddy in bright jackets, white-laced pumps and/or floaty skirt, on a well lit stage, hung with attractive banners. Kicking off with The Green Man from the latest Green Man Collection, a “re-found sound” in that it’s a song from the 1970s that disappeared again until now, we go on to dance The Dark Morris, go through Hard Times, feel the thrum of Low-flying Planes, hear The Sound of The Drum and encounter the likes of The Weaver and The Factory Maid, Black Jack Davey, Jack Hall, The Gardener, Sir John the Rose, Tam Lin and The Bonnie Black Hare. The increasing relevance today of songs that revere the importance of Nature and decry war and conflict, albeit with a hey nonny, no, no, no, hardly needs pointing out.
As the cries and applause of delighted devotees attest, there’s still strong, enduring love for this band and their music, and to round off a very pleasant evening what else but a burst of All Around My Hat from band and audience alike! There are plenty more venues to come before Christmas, so, Gaudete! Rejoice! all ye fans.
Eileen Caiger Gray