Although always described as a folk rock band, just how much weight Steeleye Span attach to one or the other of those two influences has tended to ebb and flow over time. They started off very folky, then got more rocky, then more folky, then more rocky… and so on and so on. At the moment we are at a particularly rock phase in Steeleye’s history.
Wintersmith, the Terry Pratchett-inspired 2013 album, set the band in a prog-infused direction and really gave guitarist/keyboardist, Julian Littman, a chance to come into his own and stamp his own influence on the band. It’s not a direction that’s going to please all fans but it’s one I’m certainly enjoying. “We keep movng forward – we’re not a Steeleye Span tribute act,” explains Maddy Prior at one point, as she introduces some of the newer material. And it is genuinely fascinating to witness.
We do get old songs from the back catalogue, even going back to the very first album. But the dark, heavy, progged-up feel of Wintersmith is carried through into much of the older material too, with lush keyboard passages, crunching bass lines and high-octane, melodic, screeching guitar solos. There have been a couple of personnel changes lately in this constantly-evolving band. New second guitarist, Spud Sinclair, and new fiddle player, Jessie May Smart, both bring something worthwhile to this latest musical direction the band are currently headed in. Smart is a versatile player, deftly moving from haunting and melodic to spiky and rocky, and she’s proving a worthy replacement for the legendary Peter Knight. Plus having another set of female backing vocals compliment’s Prior’s voice nicely.
It’s a well chosen selection of songs in the setlist for this tour. The excellent Wintersmith album is well-represented, of course, with songs like Crown of Ice, You and the brilliant The Dark Morris Song. But there’s some nice surprises, too. New York Girls, which I’ve always considered a fun but extremely lightweight novelty song from 1975’s Commoners Crown album (with Peter Sellers on ukele!), is transformed into something far more meaty and substantial. Cromwell’s Skull, a new song with (in the words of Rick Kemp) a real Floyd-ified bit at the end is absolutely fantastic and it’s great to see the band really rocking and progging it up. There’s the glam-folk 70s smash All Around My Hat, of course and there’s Blackleg Miner and Boys of Bedlam. But rather than encoring with the acapela Christmas hit, Gaudette, as on many previous the band all come back to stand at the mic stands to do a beautiful acapela Somewhere Along the Road, an old song of bass player, Rick Kemp, that has finally been given the Steeleye treatment.
The Steeleye Span bus continues to take us on a long, winding and unpredictable yet thoroughly satisfying journey.
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