Steeleye Span have released many albums over their 31 years of making music. Most of them are studio albums; only a handful of the official releases are live concert performances.
One such album is 1994’s Steeleye Span In Concert. Although there are no unknown songs on this album, the original studio versions bear only a passing resemblance to the versions to be found on this album. We are also treated to two different lineups of the band.
Both lineups included original member Maddy Prior, who left in 1997 to pursue a solo career, Bob Johnson on guitar/vocals, and Peter Knight, fiddler extraordinaire, both of whom are still with the band. The first line-up included drummer Nigel Pegrum, and Rick Kemp on bass, the second Liam Genocky on drums and Tim Harries on bass.
“The Blacksmith” sports an understated, languid reggae beat and Maddy’s hypnotic phrasing. It’s very different than the stolid version to be found on their very first album, Hark! The Village Wait. Flamenco-like rhythms, enhanced percussion and Peter Knight’s sinuous fiddle, chasing its tail like a cat throughout the song, characterize this version of “The Weaver,” originally known as “The Weaver And The Factory Maid,” and found on Parcel Of Rogues (1973). “Spotted Cow” is also “reggae-ized” and has a playfulness and lightness that didn’t exist in the original version on Below The Salt. Maddy plays spoons to great effect on this track.
Want to go to a hoe-down? You can, if you listen to this very different “Misty Moisty Morning.” It’s easy to imagine Maddy clogging around the stage to this one. I defy you to stop your feet from tapping!
“King Henry,” another track from Below The Salt , features some fine a capella singing as the song starts out, accompanied only by percussion. The rest of the band soon joins in with a rollicking beat that carries through until the end, at which point they return back to the a capella vocals of the opening. This is a less sinister version of the song than the original, to my mind.
The second, newer lineup starts with a full rock ‘n’ roll treatment of “The Fox.” Maddy’s voice is deeper and richer in this incarnation of the band, not surprising when you consider that eight years separate the recordings. A different drummer (Liam Genocky) and bass player (Tim Harries) push the band into a far heavier rock-oriented direction than the previous lineup.
“Canon,” known as “A Cannon By Telemann” on Back In Line, features Knight’s swirling, echo-enhanced version of a Telemann composition and uses tape delay in order to play the parts of all the musicians.
Tempted And Tried, their 1989 release, was the source for four of the tracks on this album: “Jack Hall,” “The Fox” and “Two Butchers,” and “Tunes.” Of the four, “The Fox” and “Tunes,” a fine collection of reels, are the two that I can listen to repeatedly. Tempted And Tried was not my favorite album, but never mind, they made enough other wonderful music that they can be excused a few that didn’t quite measure up to the rest.
“All Around My Hat,” from the recording of the same name (from 1975) goes hell-bent for leather. The band had to be rather tired of playing it (and I know a number of people who can’t bear to listen to it anymore, as it was the band’s second “hit”), but if they really were, it surely isn’t apparent on this recording. I must have heard it a zillion times, but I still like it!
“Tunes” is a fiddle-fronted instrumental romp with the audience urging the band on by vigorous clapping. It features some fine bass-playing and drumming, and picks up steam like a runaway train. They also appeared under the name “Sum Waves (Tunes)” on All Around My Hat.
“Gaudete,” the first of two chart-toppers for Steeleye, is the last of the tunes from Below The Salt. It doesn’t quite have the otherworldly character of the original, which was admittedly an unlikely choice for a hit single (being music from medieval Finland celebrating the birth of Jesus), but ’twill do, ’twill do.
Musically, I have no criticisms of this album other quibbles with the choice of arrangements for several of the songs. But that falls completely under “personal taste.” I think it’s important to remember that music is not static; it is always evolving — especially with a group of musicians with the creativity of Steeleye Span. Perhaps one of the downfalls of recorded music is the tendency for most of us to play a song that we love over and over again, until we lock ourselves into only one interpretation of that song. Re-worked versions of songs come to be perceived as inferior to those first heard, because the original recording serves as a benchmark. This is certainly not the case with the versions on this CD. They are vital, lively interpretations of the originals done by a band which was clearly enjoying making music both for itself and its audience.
My only gripe with this recording is the lack of specific information about where and when these recordings were done. At least the personnel and their instruments are listed, and you do get the lyrics to the songs. I was able to find out that the older lineup’s recording dates back to 1986, and that the newer recording was done in 1994, when this disc was released, through an excellent Steeleye Span Web site. This is the place to go if you want details, details, details about this band. I owe much of the detail in this review to this Web site.
No matter how many times you’ve listened to your old Steeleye Span recordings, you’ve never heard these songs like this before unless you were lucky enough to see the performances from which the songs on this CD were taken. If you love this band and especially if you were not able to see them perform live, go out and get a copy!
(Park Records, 1994)