Twenty-odd musicians passing through the ranks over the years, twenty-odd studio albums, a top five hit and countless songs depicting the cruel, the gruesome and the other-worldly, the folk rock institution that is Steeleye Span is fifty years old this year. This tour is being billed as a celebration of that and the band’s new album Est’d 1969 emphasises the point further.
The focus tonight, however, is not on self-reverential backslapping but firmly on the songs. As lead singer and founder member, Maddy Prior, said when I interviewed her for the Hastings Online Times recently it is the material that has been at the heart of the band’s success. And what a choice of songs we get tonight: from those like ‘The Blacksmith’ that appeared on the band’s very first album to several (like ‘January Man’ and Mackerel of the Sea’) that appear on their latest. There’s plenty of familiar material, like the wondrous ‘Alison Gross’, from the band’s 1970s commercial heyday, but one of the really nice things about a Steeleye Span gig is they never let the set-list become over-familiar. They mix it up from tour to tour, retrieving old songs from their back catalogue, giving others a rest and introducing the audience to new material. Indeed, the set-list tonight is quite different from the last time they performed at St. Mary in the Castle back in 2017.
The line-up of this constantly-evolving band is pretty much the same as the last time they performed here for us, save for Violeta Barrena filling in on violin for Jessie May Smart who is taking time out from the band on maternity leave. On stage the seven musicians really work well together. The ‘electric’ trio of Roger Carey on bass and Julian Littman and Spud Sinclair on guitars provide some real oomph as the band rock out on some of their harder-edged arrangements and provide a lovely contrast to the elegant beauty of Barrena’s fiddle playing and Benji Kirkpatrick’s mandolin. Long-standing Steeleye Span member and local Hastings musician, Liam Genockey, holds it all together on the drum-kit and all of the band members provide some lovely vocals on the choruses alongside Prior.
Of course, there is one song that never leaves the set. “You know what’s coming next,” says Prior when the band come back on for an encore and they launch into a thunderously energetic and suitably celebratory rendition of their 1975 Top 5 hit ‘All Around My Hat’. Rather than delving into yet another familiar old favourite the band finish the night with ‘Dodgy Bastards’, the title song from their excellent 2016 album and we are all able to leave thanking Steeleye Span for fifty years of incredible music.
Thomas the Rhymer
One Misty Moisty Morning
The Boy and the Mantle (Three Tests of Chastity)
Mackerel of the Sea
Seventeen Come Sunday
Black Jack Davy
All Around My Hat