Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review of Steeleye Span, Harlow Playhouse 11th March 2015

There are three things that can happen when a longstanding band is largely replaced by newer members. Firstly, the strengths and tastes of the new people can turn it into an almost completely different band, for good or ill. Secondly, they can end up coming over as a tribute band to themselves. Thirdly, the new members can settle in, bringing new ideas but not overwhelming the band's identity.

I was delighted to find that Steeleye Span, with only two members left from their classic Seventies line-up, are very much of the third kind.

I loved Steeleye back in the Seventies, and I've continued to enjoy their classic albums; but, unlike fellow folk-rockers Fairport Convention, I'd somehow lost track of what they've been doing since, until I chanced on and fell in love with their most recent album, Wintersmith (reviewed here last year).

So, when I found they were playing on the 11th March at the Playhouse in Harlow, only a few miles away, I went to see them for the first time in many years.

They played a mixture of classics from the Seventies — some heavily reinvented — and a substantial number of tracks from Wintersmith. The latter makes the evening bitter-sweet in retrospect. Wintersmith was a collaboration with lifelong fan Sir Terry Pratchett, and it was just the next day that he died.

Nevertheless, on the night the performance was electrifying and uplifting. The two remaining members from the Seventies are singer Maddy Prior and bassist Rick Kemp, and neither have lost any of their power. Maddy's singing is, if anything, stronger than it used to be, even if she no longer hits those notes only your dog can hear. She still dances to the instrumentals, too — rather more stately dancing than she used to do, but impressive for someone in her late 60s.

Rick is as steady and inventive as ever on the bass, and he's become an effective lead singer, taking nearly a third of the songs. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Liam Genockey, while relatively a "new boy", has actually spent longer behind the kit for Steeleye than the classic drummer Nigel Pegrum, and he plays a big part in keeping the band rocking.

Pete Zorn is newish to Steeleye Span but not to the British folk-rock scene (in spite of being American). His role is perhaps the least defined of the current line-up, but it reminds me a little of Tim Hart's multi-instrumental role in the Seventies, although he plays a different set of instruments — guitar, dulcimer, saxes and flute — and sings no leads. The saxes, in particular, give the band's sound a new dimension.

The two newest members both have extremely hard acts to follow, but succeed triumphantly. Julian Littman makes light work of being the successor, both as guitarist and vocalist, to Martin Carthy, Bob Johnson and Ken Nicol, while fiddler Jessie May Smart fills Peter Knight's seven-league boots as if they were made for her. Both clearly understand and respect Steeleye's history but are going to do things their own way. On the evidence of the Harlow gig, they've found the perfect balance I referred to at the beginning of this review.

The band played the whole evening, with no support act, and rattled through their two sets with a mix of polish and relaxed banter. They included around half of Wintersmith, which sounded as good as (or better than) on the album, and a mixture of light-hearted songs, such as One Misty Moisty Morning and Saucy Sailor, with the dark, bloodthirsty ballads Bob Johnson used to initiate, such as Long Lankin, King Henry and Edward. And they finished the first set with what Maddy called "that song" — their 1975 #5 hit All Around My Hat, with the audience yelling back the chorus.

It wasn't just crowd-pleasing, though. Steeleye have always had a habit of reinventing their songs — like the reggae reinterpretation of Spotted Cow in the Seventies — and some of the classics had a different sound. Most of all, Boys of Bedlam from their second album — the dark, eerie track Terry Pratchett cited as first hooking him on Steeleye Span — appeared in an excellently rocked-up version with a rapped interlude about being insane.

Steeleye Span have been around for forty-five years now, and don't show signs of running out of steam any time soon. They have energy that would do credit to a band half their age, and musicianship that would do credit to any band.

I'll be excited to see where the new members take them. Julian already contributes to the creation as well as the performance, with several songs on Wintersmith — one of which, The Summer Lady, has shades of Fairport Convention's Chris Leslie (in general sound, not in a derivative sense) — and he seems to handle a wide range of material with ease.

Jessie only had one fiddle instrumental this time, though her playing is a significant part of the overall sound, and I'm looking forward to hearing her come more to the fore, as Peter Knight did.

I'll certainly be watching out both for their next album and their next tour.


  1. Interesting & enjoyable Review.

    1. I went to see them at the Atkinson in Southport and they were great! Its a shame that Pratchett had passed away though.