Steeleye Span

29th. April 2006, The Cresset, Peterborough

A review by Dave Ferguson.

The last time I saw Steeleye Span was on the Rocket Cottage tour back in the seventies. Like many old fans I went away, listened to other things and then noticed a couple of years ago that the band was still a going concern. Could they still cut it as a live act? Not only that: who would be there to listen? What would a Steeleye audience look like in 2006? Well they all seemed older than us, but then they were probably thinking we seemed older than them. Where did the years go? And where did the bloke in front of us find that cheese cloth shirt? Did he have a retro-look supplier or had it been in the ice-box of his fridge since 1975. On the whole it was a sedate audience who clapped after each song, but were not about to storm the stage or dance a jig in the aisles. Were we that laid back in 1977? I don’t know; I was watching from the balcony of the Manchester Free Trade Hall, which was all I could afford; I don’t know what a Steeleye mosh pit was like in those days.

Maddy came out wearing a splendid looking multi-coloured jesters coat, but the stage was small, and her dancing had to be confined more or less to one spot, to jiggles rather than jigs. But she still has great physical presence. At her best she inhabits the songs being sprightly or sombre as the mood demands. However, especially during the first set that best was very infrequently seen. There was something lack lustre about the performance and during the interval Dave who was sitting next to me wondered if they were saving themselves for the second half, while Peter reckoned that if things had been up to standard ‘Seagull’ should have caught the audience up in its energy. The set finished with ‘Van Dieman’s Land’, a recent song that already feels like an old standard.

When the second half began Maddy announced that she had had a port and gin in the interval and this may have had the desired effect because from there on things perked up.

The material can be conveniently divided into old, new, borrowed and blue (and riddles). All the traditional stuff is old of course and borrowed. But some is also old in terms of Steeleye’s own career. For example ‘Saucy Sailor’ which opened the second set or ‘that song about the hat’ - the inevitable encore - and a wonderfully energetic rendering of the Padstow May Song. I could have done with a few more of these familiar songs, but I have to recognize that in order to continue as a creative force the band need to bring in new material. Borrowings included a couple of numbers associated with the ‘other’ folk rock band Fairport Convention. Bonny Black Hare was basically the same as the Fairport version, and whether you prefer Prior or Swarb on vocals is largely a matter of taste. Tam Lin in Steeleye’s hands was so different that it really constitutes a different song. Blue songs included the usual tales of girls, always maidens, being impregnated by blokes (always gentry). One gets the impression that in Olde England it just never happened that some old slapper got knocked up by a pleb; or if it did happen no one thought it was worth a song. There was also the ‘three in a bed’ chorus to Seagull, though Peter tells me that this is really about shove ha’penny.

The new material was very promising, and I’m already looking forward to the next album. I did not realise until I saw him in action just how good Ken Nicol’s guitar work is. ‘The Demon in the Well’ features his slide guitar to excellent effect, and is a very fine song. It seems to incorporate the rest of the band more than some of Ken’s other compositions. Verity tells me that Waddow Hall which features in this song now belongs to the Girl guiding movement and she stayed there as a child. Apparently no one told the Brownies about the demon! Rick Kemp presented part of an intriguing new song cycle about the movement from country to town at the time of the industrial revolution, including a bit of Luddite poetry set to music. The riddle songs were mostly the work of Peter Knight. These were fun but there seemed to be too many of them. His fiddle playing has lost none of its magic; it even seems to have got better and better as the years have gone by; as if he now has twenty styles instead of a dozen.

The set closed with the 12 minute epic Tam Lin, the high spot of the evening for me, and a song that is heavily featured in the programme. I was entranced. This is an epic tale belonging to the same set of border ballads as Thomas the Rhymer. It has been performed live before but as far as I’m aware there has never been a studio version. Like Thomas, Tam Lin is also carried away by the Queen of Fairie but with less benign results. The teind to Hell only hinted at in the other song is explicitly mentioned here, and the song features a seduction followed by pregnancy, a dramatic rescue from the fairy host and the curse of the fairy queen; what more could anyone wish? As I hinted earlier this version is very different both musically and lyrically from the one recorded in the sixties by Fairport Convention. It uses three different melodies for the verses as well as a refrain. The first part chops along at a lively pace and tells the story up to the point where the heroine goes to Miles Cross to rescue her lover. The next section beginning ‘Gloomy was the night’ tells of the dramatic rescue itself and the magical transformations of Tam Lin. This is slow and haunting. Then there is the cursing section where Maddy herself seemed to have been magically transformed into the vengeful Queen. Finally the song returns to its original melody and chorus completing the cycle and releasing the tension which has been building through the last two sections. This performance brings to the fore the drama of the tale, present in unaccompanied versions but partially lost in the Fairport rendering; however for this to work fully you need to be able to follow every word and this was difficult. Furthermore the cursing section, which includes three curses and a great deal of slow repetition is just a little too drawn out; one curse would do it. I am waiting for the definitive studio version, and hope some of these minor problems can be ironed out.

On the whole we enjoyed our evening; and I don’t intend to leave it 29 years before I see them again. Dave came away with a signed program for a teenage fan who lives on his street. And I came away with a copy of the new live album. I wanted to play this version of Tam Lin for my 14 year old daughter who knows the story from school and likes the Fairport version; she thinks it very good but that the cursing goes on too long. So here’s some sign of a younger generation showing some interest in a band whose appeal is timeless.

In answer to my original question: can they still cut it. The evidence from the new live album recorded in 2004 and the flashes of glory I saw on Saturday night says yes; this is a fine line up but as Dave said afterwards, ‘they didn’t rock’ They just weren’t at their best in Peterborough.

Dave Ferguson May 2006