Steeleye Span’s Live at a Distance

cover art, Live At A DistanceAt first glance, it seemed like only a short while since the previous Steeleye Span double live CD Folk Rock Pioneers In Concert was released. But it was in fact more than two years ago, so the celebration of the band’s 40th anniversary with this new double CD/DVD set is entirely reasonable. However, the distance between the releases is still close enough for purposes of comparison, in terms of similarities and differences.

The first thing to notice is that the lineup – Prior, Knight, Kemp, Nicol and Genockey – is still the same and is in fact the longest-lasting the band has enjoyed. The implied musical and personal empathy is certainly evident, though unfortunately at the time of release of Live At A Distance, Rick Kemp had to stand aside at least temporarily for health reasons.

It’s also interesting to note that the track listing for both releases is completely different, which shows an admirable willingness to diversify the repertoire, though of course they do have a few decades worth of material to work with! This current release, recorded at various venues between 2002 and 2008, also has the current studio CD Bloody Men to draw from, which it does to a fair degree.

One other similarity is that in each case, both discs could have easily held more music. Less than an hour’s playing time on both Live At A Distance CDs seems a little skimpy, especially as the accompanying DVD shows there are more songs from the 2006 Hove Centre gig that could have been utilised. Maybe they wanted to keep those exclusive to the video.

Nevertheless, that can lead us to the actual content of the set, and the performance thereof. The latter in particular. It’s hard to pinpoint anything or anyone in particular, but the opening few tracks of disc 1 seemed on initial, and subsequent, listening to be lacking a certain something. Well, not the opening track itself, the unaccompanied ‘Who’s The Fool Now’, which had been differently interpreted by an earlier lineup as ‘Well Done Liar’. Here, it shows their harmonies are still distinctive, though likely in a lower register to suit the voices as they currently are. Fair enough.

But along come ‘When I Was On Horseback’ and ‘Two Magicians’, and the more subdued treatment leads one to wonder – are they deliberately making these songs more low key for some reason, or are they just a bit tired? Later on, ‘Seagull’ pleasantly rolls along but is lacking in any great energy; ‘Horseback’ could perhaps be generously considered as more stately and the fiddle work is certainly excellent – but it still plods along more than it should. Not an auspicious start altogether.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of various other tracks, and that is obviously disappointing. Thankfully however, there is a balance and it seems to largely apply to more recent material, which may or may not be relevant. ‘The Three Sisters’ again shows Ken Nicol as a worthy replacement to Bob Johnson as guitarist and re-interpreter of traditional material; here his jabbing rhythm gives the whole song a true folk-rock feel and a classic Steeleye Span sound. The same applies to ‘Bonny Black Hare’ though oddly that only seems to really kick in about halfway through.

The lengthy ‘Ned Ludd’ song suite is another recent addition, and to my ears is actually the reverse of my main concern with the CDs, in that I think it sounds better than the studio version! It certainly captured my attention far more easily, and I think Rick Kemp’s lead singing sounds better than I’ve heard it before. His bass playing throughout is uniformly excellent, whether it be tastefully in the background or upfront and funky.

Some other tracks are more or less as good as the original recordings, such as ‘Gone To America’ and ‘Saucy Sailor’, and of course a couple of jig and reel sets find their place, including the previously unrecorded ‘Neck Belly Reel’. ‘The Blacksmith’ uses the same arrangement as the version from the very first Steeleye album, and still sounds just as good today.

The final track ‘The Song Will Remain’ has the only lead vocal from Peter Knight, and is perhaps a kind of equivalent to Fairport’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’ with its theme of “life goes on” and indeed its ultimate placement in the set. It’s still a lovely song with heartfelt vocals and is a fine finish to the collection. But the doubts about the hard-to-define malaise in much of the material remain as well.

Instrumentally, everyone plays very well indeed. Vocally – of course time changes such things, and it’s no original observation that Maddy Prior’s range is now different but to my ears, she adapts well regardless. Indeed, on ‘Bonny Black Hare’ she sings with an appropriate roughness I doubt she could have achieved in earlier years. So that’s all good too. But, the whole energy level is just too variable. Considering there were a number of concerts to select from, and assuming these were the best versions of each song available, then I suppose it was a common factor generally. That thought is a little disconcerting.

The DVD is a straightforward four camera in concert shoot, with a running time of 82 minutes. The tracklist features quite a few songs not included on the CDs, and is wholly taken from the one 2006 gig.
The extra material includes a couple of songs from their Winter CD, ‘Today In Bethlehem’, and Ken Nicol’s memorable ‘The Unconquered Sun’. Also, while earlier recorded versions of ‘Betsy Bell & Mary Gray’ – a gorgeous duet between Knight and Prior – have been superb, his fiddle playing on this reaches the level of sublime. You could say he plays like a man possessed, but it is no simile; he is clearly taken somewhere else by the music he’s playing.

Obviously, the visual aspect gives a greater perspective. The intense expressions while playing are not limited to Knight; Maddy Prior is as expressive as usual and Rick Kemp is equally engrossed while singing, while the others manage to make their own job look effortless. And even on the material that sounds lacklustre on the CDs, they are obviously enjoying themselves. Prior doesn’t dance quite as much as previously, but it’s still entertaining to watch her seated fan dance during the instrumental ‘First House In Connaught / The Woman Of The House’.

Ken Nicol adds not just his songs and personality to Steeleye but some fine playing on both acoustic and electric guitar – rhythm, lead, fingerpicking, a bit of each… no problem at all, it seems. It’s also fascinating to see Peter Knight play rhythm acoustic guitar on ‘Lord Elgin’; I’d always thought that was an overdub on the previous live version! Unhelpfully, he is not credited with either that or keyboards in the cover notes. Indeed, there are no songwriting credits to be found anywhere either, but it is still a nicely designed package overall. Technically however, it’s strange that the title screen of the DVD doesn’t repeat – if you don’t make a decision to play something fairly quickly, it just stops.

So how to summarise? Well, it’s Steeleye Span, they’ve been around for 40 years and they’re as popular as ever. When they play a delicate piece, it can be genuinely moving. When they rock out, it can be exhilarating. When they just coast along however, it’s OK but disappointing, and while there’s not an overwhelming amount of coasting altogether here, there’s a bit too much for comfort. That doesn’t necessarily make this not worth purchasing by any means, but is worth bearing in mind.

The title is of course an allusion to ‘I Live Not Where I Love’, with the opening line “Come all you maids who live at a distance” so it’s good to see their taste for bad puns remains undiminished!

(Park Records, 2009)