Steve Ashley’s Live In Concert

cover art, Live In ConcertThis is such an innocuous title for a CD of such an important event! Let me elaborate a little. Live In Concert was recorded in Cheltenham, UK, on March 12, 2006, to celebrate Steve Ashley’s sixtieth year on the planet – and what better way than to gather together as many as possible of the musicians he has worked with over the decades and have one big on-stage party?

This made for a busy and active stage with the comings and goings of not just various band members, but also a six-piece orchestra (orchestrette?) conducted by Robert Kirby (notable for his work on the earlier Steve Ashley albums) and other special guests. It must be a sign of the regard in which Ashley is held that so many of his past collaborators were happy to be part of this occasion – and there is definitely a sense of occasion on this recording.

Names that seemed consigned to his past came back to life in the form of the duo Tinderbox and the band Ragged Robin, for one song each on this recording. ‘The Spirit Of Christmas’ is Tinderbox’s contribution. Not only is the song itself as enchanting as ever, but it is hard to believe so many years have passed between the original recording and this version. Dave Menday’s guitar work and Ashley’s vocal and whistle still work together beautifully and it must be said that his voice doesn’t sound all that different to the original recording. Keys have been altered (which probably helps) and certainly some change of timbre can be detected in places, but generally Ashley neither sounds – or going by the cover, looks – like a sixty year old. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Ragged Robin provide ‘The Well At The World’s End’ which is good, loose folk-rock and an example of the musical diversity on display. Solo acoustic, orchestral, folk-rock – it’s all there, with the commonality provided by Ashley’s unique style of songwriting, and the empathy of all the musicians with it.

The diversity carries over to the lyrical themes as well. A good example is the juxtaposition of ‘Ships Of Shame’ with ‘Family Love.’ The former is a brand new song with a contemporary warship theme and lyrics that speak of their containing more power to destroy than the bomb that decimated Hiroshima, and how much better such money could be spent. The latter is a series of vignettes from a family trip to the sea, including one member’s unfortunate bodily functions. Blowing up as opposed to blowing off – you can’t get much more diverse than that.

Unsurprisingly, Robert Kirby’s arrangements augment the songs perfectly on tracks such as ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Say Goodbye.’ Elsewhere, the Steve Ashley Band tracks exhibit their own brand of variety and clever arrangements – ‘Back On The Road Again’ is fun country/folk rock, while ‘The Weapon’ and ‘Easy Come’ are songs with a social conscience. All are enhanced by the brass section of Jim Sallis and Steve Hooper. Other guests include various members of Fairport Convention and its extended family, who have helped Ashley throughout his career – Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg assist on the opening track ‘I’m A Radio’ and ‘Feeling Lazy,’ Maartin Allcock adds some wonderfully flowing bass work behind the orchestral arrangements and Chris Leslie features on a number of tracks as part of the Steve Ashley Band.

The guitar work of the main attraction himself is up to standard as well, particularly noticeable on ‘None Can Tell,’ which is another of his songs that sounds as contemporary now as when first recorded thirty or so years ago. Special mention must be given to ‘Feeling Lazy’ as it’s a rare combination of the vocals of Steve Ashley and Phil Beer from Show Of Hands (also an MC on the night). Their voices blend together well and luckily this is one of the songs that was not hit by the gremlins that beset the recording in its latter stages, meaning that some performances could not be preserved on this disc.

For those that are included however, the sound quality is good and clear, and the occasional looseness in playing is testament to the untampered nature of the recording. What we hear is how it was, and particularly for organic music such as this, that’s probably how it should be.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album in its own right, and is a good indicator of Steve Ashley’s past, present and future. ‘I’m A Radio,’ one of a couple of music-hall sounding songs on the CD, has the theme of an old radio which has heard a lot in its time but is now older with more experience and knowledge, and yet its fire has not gone out. I don’t know if Ashley wrote it as an allegory for his own life but it would certainly seem to fit. If the new song ‘Ships Of Shame’ is any guide, he has plenty more to say and plenty of friends to help him say it.

Happy birthday to Steve Ashley!

This review was originally written for Fiddlestix.

(Dusk Fire, 2006)