As one of the founding bands of the British folk-rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Steeleye Span has long been recognized as musical pioneers. Mixing traditional folk music with electric instruments might not seem all that unusual today, but when the band’s first album, Hark! the Village Wait, came out in 1970, it was nearly unheard of. The band has gone through numerous line-up changes over the years – husband and wife duo Gay and Terry Woods left after that first album (performing as a duo for several years; after that, Terry went on to join Irish folk-rockers The Pogues, and Gay returned to the Steeleye fold briefly for a trio of albums in the late 90s), then after their third album, Ten Man Mop, Ashley Hutchings (who had previously been a founding member of another seminal folk-rock band, Fairport Convention) left to form The Albion Country Band.
In fact, the band that came to The Birchmere on Tuesday night has not (yet) recorded an album together, with only singer Maddy Prior continuing to represent the original group and drummer (and sometimes guitarist) Liam Genockey, who originally joined the band in 1986, rounding up the old guard. New members Julian Littman (guitar and vocals) and Jessie-May Smart (violin) have managed to integrate themselves into the band’s sound, though, and last-minute fill-in bassist Nils Petersen handled the pressure of having to play a whole concert of songs he’d just learned with ease (Prior’s son Alex Kemp, who was supposed to be with the band on bass for this tour, had visa issues and was unable to join them for their US shows).
Foregoing an opener for the night, the band played two sets made up songs from throughout their catalog. But from the opening song “Blackleg Miner,” from that first album, it was clear that the band wasn’t simply resting on their catalog, as the song had a whole new arrangement different from either time they recorded it (the song also appeared, in yet another version, on 1986’s Back In Line). Steeleye Span has never been a band afraid to rework their own material, and throughout the night several of their songs, including “Jack Hall,” “When I Was On Horseback,” and “Boy of Bedlam,” received an alternative treatment. Reaching far back into her catalog, Prior performed two songs from her pre-Steeleye, more traditional folk project with guitarist Tim Hart (also a founding member of the band), “I Live Not Where I Love” and “Dancing at Whitsun” accompanied only by Littman, like on those original recordings, on acoustic guitar. Between tracks, Prior frequently explained something about the next song – its origin, the meaning behind it, where she or the band had first heard it.
Also included in the setlist were several songs from the band’s most recent album, Wintersmith, which was written and recorded with late fantasy author Terry Pratchett, “The Dark Morris Song” and “The Summer Lady.” As the only non-traditional tracks of the night, they stood out as a bit different from the rest, but fit in well with the overall set. The band closed the show with an encore of another non-album track, “Somewhere Along the Road” (which previously appeared on a rarities compilation) performed a cappella by the entire band.
All photos by Matt Condon. Click to embiggen.