STEELEYE SPAN AND FRIENDS INCLUDING THE ACOUSTIC STRAWBS
Barbican Centre, London, December 19 2011
In my Slade review (see below) I pointed out that their 1975 hit ‘Far Far Away’ was the first single my parents ever bought me, at the tender age of two. Apparently it was one of only two songs capable of making me shut the fuck up and stop crying in my pushchair: the other was Steeleye Span’s 'All Around My Hat'. How coincidental, then, that I should be seeing both bands one night after the other this Christmas. It almost seems like some strange portentous foreboding harbinger of something, although I’m buggered if I know what.
It makes sense, though, because Steeleye have always been there, beckoning me to return to them again and again, and while they’re still wont to still take risks, push the envelope and do challenging things with electric folk music, there’s something reassuringly familiar about seeing them once a year on stage: a bit like visiting an old relative you know you’ll be welcomed by, but being taken aback each time by their new décor and the way they’ve had their garden done. They also radiate, and have always radiated, a warmth which has been sadly absent in the music of their contemporaries Fairport Convention (though I still admire them) for maybe two decades now- a warmth which glows consistently throughout tonight’s performance. Or maybe that’s just the lights.
Actually maybe it’s because attending a Steeleye gig is still, even in 2011, like being invited to a wassailing banquet in a mediaeval castle stocked with flagons of fine ale, freshly farmed food and nubile serving wenches whilst “antiente sayges“ unravel tayles of murdyrr, mysterrie and myrrth. Or at least in my head it is. In reality we’re in a postmodernist theatre in EC1, and it’s pissing down outside. But the minute violinist Peter Knight plucks the pizzicato intro to 'Seven Hundred Elves' and Liam Genockey thruds the backbeat into life, the fantasy takes over. These days there’s less pressure to play newer material, allowing them to play the entire Now We Are Six album in full: an interesting choice, especially as it features three tunes which still split the vote to this day (the title track, which consists of three riddles set to music, and covers of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and 'To Know Him Is To Love Him'), but all three work in this setting, particularly the latter, where rhythm guitarist Pete Zorn replicates David Bowie’s legendary sax solo from the original (Steeleye’s that is, not the Teddy Bears) beautifully, and Maddy Prior’s vocals reach enough otherwise untapped heights of soulful rockiness to make you wish they’d explored the route further.
I’m not entirely sure if they’re playing the tracks in their original order or that of the recently re-recorded CD (a bit of both, methinks) but dark, brooding murder ballads like 'Edwin' and 'Thomas The Rhymer' sound perfect in any order, with Rick Kemp handling the long-absent Bob Johnson’s vocals as if he’d been doing it from the off, while 'Two Magicians', which will be known to any Current 93 fans reading this as “Oh Coal Black Smith” is an absolute delight, boasting possibly the most difficult yet simultaneously the most infectious chorus in folk and a breezy cheerfulness that masks yet again its subversive, shamanistic nature. He wrote some deep lyrics, that “Trad Arr” bloke. On the rockier numbers, new lead guitarist Julian Littman (yes, Britsploitation buffs, he of Hammer Horror Black Carrion infamy) manages to imprint his own personality on that by-now-standardised folk-rock fuzz riffage which Steeleye are probably more responsible for than anyone else.
Having a new lineup but no new material to plug also means the band are able to stretch out and dig more deeply during the second half, but first, there’s the curious interlude of the Acoustic Strawbs: one would have thought it might have made more sense to have them on at the start, but the “middling” effect proves successful. Messrs Cousins, Cronk and Lambert (the latter still one of the country’s most underrated guitarists) bestride their strange engagement like the seasoned professionals they are, and there’s a new resonance in their fingerpicking tonight, particularly on the solos to 'Autumn” “Ghosts' and 'Lay Down', but, despite remaining high on my personal list of fave bands, they lose major points for delivering practically the same set they’ve purveyed in their acoustic incarnation for about seven years now (even to the point of the inter-song banter that seems so meticulously rehearsed you’re searching the stage for the autocue) and for two of them being woefully out of time with each other during an otherwise beautifully strident 'New World'. Still, playing the same seven songs night after night must wear on the artist eventually: maybe time for a little variation, chaps? You’ve got 45 years’ worth of classics to choose from. The response to the rarely-aired single 'The King' from 1981, on which Maddy reappears to duet with Cousins, would seem to confirm this, as it’s by far and away the highlight of their 45 minutes.
While the Span’s second outing also features a few hardy perennials we’ve all come to expect ('The Lark In The Morning' and the inevitable '…..Hat' among them) they’re performed with such impassioned gusto they still feel new, especially with founder and folk titan Martin Carthy joining the ensemble for several numbers. I defy anyone, no matter how cool they may think themselves, to not sing rumbustiously along with the latter when presented with it at full volume. Ironically the one he doesn’t stick around for is 'Cold Haily Windy Night', which he first brought to the band on the superb Please To See The King album in 1972, possibly because the band have, in Kemp’s words, “nailed a riff to it”, but the reworked version’s near-metal gallop is, by all means, a bit of a belter - as is the ominous, rumbling prog-jazz of 'The Bonny Black Hare'. It features enough Mahavishnu-like fiddlage from Knight and shrieking of its ribald lyric from Prior to scare the crap out of the assembled pensioners. Now that, Mr Munford and your bloody Sons, is folk-rock. Watch and learn.
Steeleye Span have never been cool , either as a name to drop during the acid-folk revival of ’03-04, or at their commercial peak in ’74-76 (maybe because they had a commercial peak), and when they veer annoyingly toward the safe and staid end of their genre, as on 'Two Constant Lovers', which, even prefaced by Knight’s wry Sarf London humour, is too close to MOR for these ears. It can jar somewhat, all the more so when compared with the eerie brilliance they’re otherwise capable of. But what makes them still so enthralling after 40 years is that they clearly don’t give a shit. That and the fact that at their best they’re untouchable masters of a timeless craft. This music is older than the hills, and will still be around when we’re all gone, as the final closing harmonies of perhaps that most overlooked of Christmas singles, 'Gaudete' reiterate. One of rock’s more unique standalone moments, it never fails to chill the spine or moisten the eye. I’d love to hear the locals attempt that one whilst carol-singing. If the structure of tonight’s show leaves no room for similar favourites like 'Sheep Crook And Black Dog', 'Long Lankin', 'Royal Forester, the fuzz-fest that is 'Alison Gross' or the ever-pertinent 'Hard Times Of Old England', rest assured that they’ll all be back. And so will I.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON