The New Forest Folk Festival is a small-scale festival that takes place on a farm just outside the New Forest on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border . Although it’s only been going a couple of years and is tiny compared to some festivals, they have managed to attract some great acts and some pretty big names, too. Steeleye Span headlining on the Saturday night is quite a coup so kudos to the organisers.
This is a slightly refreshed version of the band since their 2013 winter tour. Long-standing fiddle-player, Peter Knight, left Steeleye Span at the end of last year. The current crop of shows are therefore the first with his replacement, Jessie May Smart. Different members have come and gone over the years, of course, including seemingly irreplaceable ones. But what Steeleye have always managed to do is put together a convincing set of musicians that retains continuity with the previous line-up, draws on the rich back catalogue of the band while bringing in fresh blood or, in several cases, bringing back former members coming in for another crack at it. Smart has wisely resisted any attempt to become a Peter Knight tribute act (where would one start?) Nevertheless, she is a talented musician in her own right and as the band rocks out through their set she delivers some superb fiddle playing.
Just as they have form in successfully integrating new members alongside longstanding ones, so it is with the songs, too. We get a good selection of classic songs from previous decades. Thomas the Rhymer, The Weaver and the Factory Maid, Edward, Saucy Sailor and Bonny Black Hare are all included. But we also get a nice selection from their new album, too: the superb Wintersmith which came out last year. The Dark Morris Song and Wintersmith, inspired (like the whole album) by the writing of Terry Pratchett, are classics in themselves and easily stand up against the older material.
Julian Littman is a great lead guitarist. Joining the band four years ago he really came into his own on the Wintersmith album, contributing some writing credits and lead vocals as well as guitar. With Rick Kemp on bass, Liam Genockey on drums and multi-instrumentalist Peter Zorn, they provide classic folk rock backing to the wonderfully distinctive and beautifully clear voice of Maddy Prior. Steeleye Span have certainly not mellowed with age and their set is most definitely folk rock in all its glory, not simply folk with a bit of electrification thrown in.
As with all festivals when you see one of your favourite bands performing the time just flies by. And before long it’s all over bar the inevitable encore of All Around My Hat. “Don’t get all snooty about it being a hit,” Prior jokingly warned the crowd, “just sing the bloody thing.” And sing it is precisely what everyone did. Actually, I would never get snooty about All Around My Hat. For those, like me, who love both 70s glam rock and traditional English folk music – what’s not to like about Steeleye’s unique version of this song!
So, for those wondering whether it’s worth seeing Steeleye Span: “Is it still Steeleye without Peter Knight? Is Maddy’s voice still up to it? Is the stuff from their new album any good?” The answer is yes, yes and yes.